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Bennett ouster seen as sea change

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GREENFIELD — It was a shock to some that Tony Bennett, the state school superintendent who had been a leader in education reforms in Indiana, was defeated Tuesday night.

A teacher from Indianapolis, Democrat Glenda Ritz, defeated Bennett. The victory sent jubilation through local and state teacher associations. The outcome was exactly what local educators say they wanted, expected and had to have.

“We think Glenda’s victory should be seen as a referendum on the reforms that Bennett has very aggressively pushed through,” said Patricia Laughlin, Mt. Vernon Teacher’s Association president.

Bennett had been the point man for implementing Gov. Mitch Daniels’ school voucher programs, merit pay for teachers, the expansion of charter schools and an A-through-F grading system for schools – all policies that educators say were pushed forward without their input.

“Teachers, administrators and superintendents have been demoralized, dismissed from the table and denied opportunities to have meaningful input regarding the reforms,” Laughlin said.

Ritz, a media specialist at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township in Marion County, organized a grassroots campaign through the Indiana State Teachers Association opposing Bennett’s policies.

She beat him soundly, garnering 1,285,369 votes statewide compared to 1,142,542 for Bennett. Her vote total was higher than that for Republican Mike Pence, who was elected governor.

“Undoubtedly, voter frustration made a difference with so many radical changes at the IDOE (Indiana Department of Education),” Greenfield-Central Superintendent Linda Gellert said.

Gellert noted that some of those changes were not for the betterment of schools and required additional work and cost for schools.

“When schools requested assistance, IDOE response time was slow at best,” Gellert said.

School reform has been more than a hot topic the past several years across the state and nation. Districts in Indiana have lost an estimated $300 million in funding, leading to massive budget cuts, loss of jobs, larger classrooms and programs being slashed.

Some educators believed that the Bennett/Daniels agenda was designed to privatize education or at least make it a smaller expenditure for the state government.

“Teachers feel that many of the decisions being made are based on money and not what is really beneficial for children,” said Clark Fralick, president of the Southern Hancock Teachers Association.

Added Jeff Sincroft, president of the Greenfield-Central Teachers Association: “Over the last four years, teaching has been devalued, and our voice has been given to corporate donors and for-profit organizations.”

Many educators believed Bennett, with Daniels’ backing, set out to vilify the teaching profession.

“In order to justify implementing sweeping reforms, you must first prove that the system is broken, so that is what Bennett and Daniels did,” Laughlin said.

Since the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind program, educators say they’ve been portrayed as part of a national educational system that doesn’t work.

By ousting Bennett, many are hopeful it sends a message throughout the nation.

Ritz pledged to roll back many of Bennett’s changes, including a reading test that third-graders must pass to advance to fourth grade.

“I think the voters have been really clear that we want an education agenda, not a political agenda for our kids,” said Ritz, who has 33 years of experience as an educator.

Ritz said parents, not just teachers, disliked Bennett’s changes, particularly a move toward private takeovers of public schools that repeatedly fail performance grades based largely on standardized tests.

Educators are heartened that changes are coming.

“I think teachers are excited, because they feel they will be treated with respect again and that they will truly have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding what’s best for students,” Sincroft said.

While local educators are realistic and know Ritz’s election will not be a cure-all to the many issues educators face, they are hopeful of having a person at the top who will at least slow down the reform process.

“We need time to study the impact of the changes to see if it is really what is best for students,” Laughlin said.

One of the changes implemented by Bennett dealt with teacher licensing. Under Bennett, the DOE implemented Revisions for Educator Preparation and Accountability- REPA 1 – changing the way teachers are licensed in the state.

Laughlin said Bennett, with no oversight, is in the process of trying to push REPA 2 into effect. Among other things, the rules would make it easier for non-traditional teachers to enter the profession. Proponents have argued that people with expertise or significant studies in a field and who are drawn to teaching should face fewer barriers to do so. Teacher unions disagree.

“REPA 2 will deprofessionalize teaching,” Laughlin said. “You can graduate from college with a 3.0, not having studied education or a specific content, and become a teacher.”

It would also mean if a teacher were to lose his or her job through poor evaluations with the new RISE teacher assessment model, they would also lose their teaching license.

“They’d take your credential that you paid for,” Laughlin said.

While Gellert was glad to see the change at the top, she admitted Bennett’s job was no easier than hers or any other person in education.

“It generates a lot of sideline quarterbacks,” she said.

Her advice to Ritz: Remember who put her in office and connect with schools across the state right away.

“Soldiers need support in the trenches,” Gellert said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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