The anti-Common Core election campaign that wasn’t

It’s been 19 months since Glenda Ritz upset Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, but some people are still struggling to make sense of the election. One tempting explanation: Voters punished Bennett for supporting the Common Core State Standards. From there, it’s a short step to imagining a campaign that didn’t happen.

You’ll see it in “The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar,” a Fordham Institute policy piece on state education departments. “Political backlash has often frustrated state efforts to adopt, protect, and implement the CCSS,” the report says. “Tony Bennett, Indiana’s chief, was defeated in an upset election by Glenda Ritz, who ran largely on an anti-CCSS platform.”

In fact, that didn’t happen at all. I wasn’t involved in Ritz’s campaign, but I paid pretty close attention. I don’t recall her raising Common Core as an issue, much less running “largely on an anti-CCSS platform.” But I don’t entirely trust my memory, so I reached out to people who were involved in the campaign, to the organization Republicans for Glenda Ritz, even to someone who is close to Bennett. They all agreed that Common Core wasn’t a point of emphasis for Ritz or much of a factor in the election.

Trish Whitcomb, Ritz’s campaign manager, said Ritz didn’t campaign against Common Core. The topic would occasionally come up at campaign events or on social media, she said; and Ritz would say Indiana had rushed to adopt CCSS in 2010 without much input and it would be appropriate to take another look.

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Note to Indiana lawmakers: stop monkeying around with ‘creation science’

It’s ironic that just as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation was praising Indiana for having some of the best science education standards in the country, the Indiana Senate was debating legislation to authorize the teaching of “creation science.”

Fortunately, an amendment offered by Bloomington Democrat Vi Simpson made the legislation relatively harmless, at least for now. But who knows what may happen when it moves to the House for further consideration?

As introduced by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, Senate Bill 89 would have let school boards mandate the teaching of “various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science,” which claims to provide scientific support for the creation story in the book of Genesis.

According to Suzanne Eckes, an education law expert at the Indiana University School of Education, that would be an invitation to a lawsuit, and one the school would probably lose.

“The law is fairly settled in this area,” she said, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violates the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. The decisions were Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968 and Edwards v. Aguillard (from Louisiana) in 1987.

Kruse told Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star that the Supreme Court has changed since 1987 and it could rule differently today. Maybe, but as recently as 2005, federal courts ruled against teaching creationism in Selman v. Cobb (from Georgia) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pennsylvania).

And any school district that wants to put the courts to the test had better have deep pockets. Continue reading

Education reform idolatry

If this education thing doesn’t work out for Tony Bennett, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction may have a future in reality TV.

Check out his performance at the recent Education Reform Idol competition hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – where Indiana walked away with the title of the “reformiest” state in the nation.

Bennett’s fellow contestants, the chief state education officers of Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin, appear slightly uncomfortable to be taking part in a sort of questionable inside joke about changes that, for better or worse, will affect the lives of millions of students and teachers.

The “celebrity judges,” Jeanne Allen, Bruno Manno, and Richard Lee Colvin, seem never to have heard of American Idol’s Simon Cowell, never mind trying to imitate him. Despite prompting by emcee Michael Petrilli, most of the folks on the stage act like they’re at an education policy symposium.

Not so Bennett. He goes for the gusto, talking trash about his opponents, repeating his mantra of “competition, freedom and accountability” and drawing political lines in the sand.

He sets the tone by claiming he’s like Larry Bird at the first NBA 3-point contest: “I’m just here to see who’s going to finish second.” He scoffs at the notion that Illinois could be reformy: “Illinois is the state where Indiana legislators ran away to get away from education reform legislation,” he says, referring to the Indiana House Democrats’ walkout this session. He says reform in Indiana took off after we – that is, Republicans – seized control of state government.

Tossed a friendly question about helping teachers improve, Bennett takes it as an opportunity to zing education schools. He says Indiana lets teachers earn license-renewal credits through professional development “so no longer are teachers held hostage by the cash cows of higher education.”

“If you want to talk about flashy legislation, and implementing flashy legislation in a streamlined fashion, come to Indiana,” Bennett says.

If the judges won’t be Simon Cowell, leave it to Bennett.

Ohio experience raises concerns about Indiana ‘turnaround school operator’

Another warning has been sounded about the Indiana Department of Education’s proposal to hand management of “failing” schools over to for-profit EdisonLearning – and from an unexpected source.

Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes on Flypaper, the organization’s blog, that Edison hasn’t delivered on improving results at two charter schools that it manages in Dayton.

The Fordham Institute, of course, isn’t some anti-charter, anti-reform organization. It is a longtime supporter of school choice, charter schools, education entrepreneurship and high-stakes accountability. In fact it authorizes charter schools in Ohio, including the Edison schools in Dayton.

“Fordham president Chester E. Finn Jr. helped launch Edison in the early 1990s, and Fordham has served as authorizer of the two Dayton schools operated by Edison since 2005,” Ryan writes. “These two schools have been in operation for nearly a decade, and despite declining enrollment that resembles a ski slope … have received more than $93.5 million in public funding. Yet after all that time and money, one school’s academic performance is middling at best; the other has struggled mightily to deliver students to even basic levels of achievement.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced last month that the Department of Education had selected Edison, Charter Schools USA, and EdPower as “turnaround operators” to potentially take over seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. The department claims the three were selected through a rigorous Request for Proposals process.

You would think a rigorous selection process would include checking out Edison’s record in neighboring Ohio. Or maybe not.

“The only Hoosier who I spoke to about our experience with Edison was Scott Elliott at the Indianapolis Star,” Ryan said in response to an email query.

Ryan said he doesn’t know how Edison’s “weak to mediocre” performance with Dayton charter schools will translate to turnaround efforts in Indiana. “But I’d strongly urge Indiana officials to keep serious pressure on Edison to deliver everything they promise,” he told School Matters. “I’d also urge outside groups to pay close attention to whether or not Edison — and any other groups brought in to turn around schools — actually deliver.”

The State Board of Education is expected to decide Aug. 29-30 which of the schools will be taken over, and by which turnaround operator.