Bennett campaign for school changes not done

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In Indiana, the state schools chief is as much pitchman as he is educator.

And Hoosier schools chief Tony Bennett embraces the role of pitchman. Bennett talks with boundless energy—occasionally as a host on conservative talk radio—and gusto. Hanging in his office is a portrait of the embodiment of American gusto: Teddy Roosevelt.

When it came to securing some of the nation's broadest education changes, he engaged in 10 months of intensive lobbying, visiting schools and educators across the state. He met with 8,000 educators to talk about the overhaul, while his top staff met with another 20,000.

He built a PowerPoint (obligatory). He used his gusto to deliver the message (not always obligatory, but a plus in politics). And he got out of the office (obligatory).

"Had we tried to govern from the Indiana Statehouse, that would have been difficult," Bennett said. "Over the last eight or so months, we traveled to every corner of the state."

The tour was courageous for a relative political novice, whose first run for office was for schools chief in 2008.

The result was a shock-and-awe package that hit all the conservative reformer's bases: merit-based pay for teachers, new school evaluation metrics, an expansion of the state's charter school mandate and the nation's largest voucher program to pay for public school students to attend private schools.

But teachers say what Bennett called a listening tour of the state was really a lecture circuit.

"It's simply been a matter of the Department of Education and Bennett telling teachers what they think education reform is and not listening," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

"There's a difference between talking to people and listening to them," he said.

There's no doubt the state's Republican leadership — including Bennett, Gov. Mitch Daniels and the leaders of the General Assembly — swiftly drove a train of sweeping changes through the teachers' unions.

"Any time there's any type of disagreement about any of the proposals that are put forth under the guise of reforms, we're pretty much kicked to the side," Schnellenberger said.

Bennett said that while he never wavered when talking directly to his critics, he did bring back some advice from teachers on getting local input on school evaluations and cracking down on truant students and their parents.

"We were able to go out take notebooks in hand and say 'Hey we've heard from teachers,'" he said.

Some of the divide can be attributed to the surface-level politics surrounding education nationwide.

In the last few years, national education reformers have developed an image as political rock stars: rebels with a cause standing up to the public education establishment.

Former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee became a folk hero among education reformers when she took on the unions representing teachers in some of the nation's worst-performing schools.

Now Rhee travels the nation advising Republican governors on education and lobbying for the same changes she pushed in Washington, as she did with Daniels at a Statehouse rally in March.

Indiana's education overhaul has won Bennett some national shine—enough so that when Florida's Republican governor was looking for a new state schools superintendent, the headhunting firm he hired looked in "flyover country" and found Bennett. (Bennett said he's not interested in the job.)

Bennett also took over recently as chairman of Chiefs for Change, a group of state schools chiefs pushing education reform. The group is affiliated with the Florida education reform group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

If the makers of the charter school documentary "Waiting for Superman" ever make a sequel, Bennett would make an obvious choice to fill the role Rhee played in the first movie.

Politics is built on campaigns. But, in many ways, so is public leadership.

A good campaign for office—like the one Bennett ran to win his gig—is predicated on groundwork and reaching out to as many different parties as possible and listening to them. A good campaign for the actual change preached about in a thousand stump speeches is built on that same groundwork.

Once that change is written into law, another campaign ensues, determining how best to implement the change.

Bennett is now at the start of that last campaign: building the new metrics for evaluating schools and teachers, deciding what it takes to win a voucher to a private school and making the changes he campaigned so hard for over the last few years real.

And again, Schnellenberger says public educators are being kicked to the side.

"I not only hear teachers ask it, I hear superintendents: 'How is this all going to work? So they passed this reform program but we haven't really seen what that means.'"

If the teachers are right, Bennett still has a few months to revamp his campaign model and bring educators on board.

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