The 48-year-old Republican defeated Democrat Richard D. Wood, who had been superintendent of Tippecanoe County Schools, to become Indiana's new superintendent of public instruction. He'll be sworn in Jan. 12.
"We should get up every morning and say we should be the best in education," Bennett said. "Coming with that is the inherent obligation to do something about it."
Improving education is a hot-button issue that typically is among those topping any voter poll. In Indiana, about one in four high school students fails to graduate in four years,and funding challenges are especially great.
Even so, Bennett could provide a breath of fresh air. His predecessor, Suellen Reed, did not seek re-election. Reed was first elected during Sen. Evan Bayh's second run for governor in 1992 and held the post for 16 years.
Although Gov. Mitch Daniels and Reed are of the same party, they didn't always share the same agenda, said Derek Redelman, vice president of education and work-force policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
"One of the greatest changes we will see is a superintendent who is willing to work with the governor on his agenda," Redelman said, "which we haven't had in quite some time."
Bennett's priorities include restoring discipline to the classroom, recruiting topnotch teachers and adequately compensating them, increasing the percentage of education dollars spent directly on instruction, and reducing regulations so schools can focus more on student instruction.
How successful Bennett is in accomplishing his goals remains to be seen. But those who know him best are confident he is up to the task. Keith Henderson, prosecutor of Floyd County, befriended Bennett in high school and chaired his campaign.
"He's not worried about what's politically correct," Henderson said. "He's more intent on finding a solution. That's refreshing, from my perspective, in today's environment when so many people are afraid to go outside the line."
Inspired by teachers
Bennett earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Indiana University Southeast, and his doctorate and Indiana superintendent's license from Spaulding University in Louisville. He landed his first job at alma mater Providence High School in Clarksville teaching biology and science.
A later stint at Scottsburg High School had him pulling the unusual double duty as principal and high school basketball coach, something that would be unlikely at a larger school district. Still, Bennett reflected fondly on the time.
"One of the real benefits of serving in administration in a school corporation that size is that you had the opportunity to learn aspects that you wouldn't normally learn," he said, "because bigger places, we have people who specialize in those."
Bennett has served as superintendent of the 11,000-student Greater Clark County district since July 2007. Before that, he was an assistant superintendent at New Albany-Floyd County Schools.
During his abbreviated tenure at Clark County, Bennett is most proud of erasing a $2.5 million budget deficit by making "very difficult and creative" staffing decisions. He didn't have an assistant superintendent, for instance.
On top of that, he inherited a challenging building project — the renovation of high schools in Jeffersonville, Charleston and New Washington — that came in under budget. And he increased the amount of time students spend in the classrooms.
Teachers he admired and wanted to emulate as a youngster inspired him to become an educator.
His wife, Tina, is a school administrator as well, serving as principal of Clarksville High School. She ultimately will quit her job once the couple moves to Indianapolis. They have 22-year-old triplets (two girls and one boy) and a 19-year-old daughter.
Once sworn in, Bennett will begin working with state lawmakers to champion his causes. The upcoming session is particularly important to school districts, because legislators will craft a two-year state budget.
A major component of that is the school funding formula, which funds 293 school corporations. The poor economy could mean a minimal funding increase for schools, if any, said Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at the IU Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
"Recognizing difficult economic circumstances and declining or static revenues for the state, it's going to be another lean two years for school corporations," he predicted.
The forecast could make Bennett's priority of driving more tax dollars to the classroom even more challenging. At Greater Clark County, 65 percent of the district's budget went straight to learning, he said — 4 percent above the state average.
His goal of restoring order within schools could come in the form of legislation that would broaden teacher rights and give them more legal protection when disciplining students. More comprehensive background checks also may be on the table.
Bennett said teachers support his push to grant them civil immunity when disciplining students. To make his point, he recalled when a teacher at his wife's school was afraid to break up a fight for fear she might be sued if she grabbed a student.
Another goal is to reduce the amount of regulations from the state Department of Education. Indiana's rulebook, published annually, numbers more than 1,300 pages, Spradlin said.
A high school near Kokomo, for instance, houses the community library, Bennett said. But the librarian, who holds a master's degree, can't double as a media specialist, under state law. So if schools don't have a media specialist, they have to place a teacher in the library, which wastes resources, Bennett said.
Bound to surface are the broader issues such as high school graduation rates, test scores and full-day kindergarten.
Indiana's graduation rate remains nearly unchanged from last year, with about three-fourths of students earning a high school diploma within four years. Holding expelled students accountable for coursework and providing vocational pathways for those not interested in pursuing a college education might help improve the rate, Bennett said.
Roughly $50 million so far has been allotted to fund full-day kindergarten, which is not enough to provide for every student. Daniels is expected to request another $50 million to expand the program, Spradlin said.
Though problems exist, the state is performing well in certain education areas. Its academic standards are among the best in the nation, the age at which students can drop out has been raised to 18, ISTEP testing has been moved to the spring, and tougher Core 40 requirements have been established. Core 40 is a set of courses identified by business and higher education leaders as providing the minimum skills necessary for either entering the work force or completing additional education after high school.
How many terms?
Republicans for decades have had a lock on the superintendent of public instruction position. A Democrat hasn't been elected to the office since 1970, and the lopsidedness shows in the latest state campaign finance figures. Through Oct. 20, Bennett raised nearly 10 times as much as his competitor: $276,651 to $30,350.
Yet, Bennett took nothing for granted. He traveled every corner of the state campaigning as much as he could while still managing to maintain a full-time job, he said.
He spoke at the Republican rallies in Noblesville and Jeffersonville that featured vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Bennett never got the chance to meet her.
While her name is thrown around as a rising star within the party, Bennett is unsure what his political future holds.
"If we are successful and there is a calling to serve again, I'm not opposed to that," he said. "Our first priority is to get to the office on Jan. 12 and move forward in a bold and creative way, so I haven't even thought of that."