A traditionally sleepy race for Indiana's top elected school position has turned into a referendum on education policies that are endorsed by conservatives across the country.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, earned a national reputation by helping Gov. Mitch Daniels push through a 2011 legislative agenda that included tying teachers' pay to student performance, limiting teacher union contracts to wages and benefits, and expanding charter schools and what has become the country's largest school voucher program.
"This is definitely being watched nationally as a referendum on reform. If Tony Bennett can push this kind of aggressive reform agenda and win, it will give a big lift to other politicians eager to enact similar reforms," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.
But Bennett is under siege from teachers who think they're unfairly being blamed for failing schools. The loudest voice belongs to his opponent, Democrat Glenda Ritz, a veteran educator who claims Bennett's agenda is a thinly veiled attempt to replace public schools with for-profit operations — regardless of results.
Ritz claims widespread grassroots support, but financially, she is being outgunned. Her campaign has raised about $200,000 to date, about the same amount as a single contribution to Bennett's campaign in July by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton of Arizona. Bennett's last report showed his campaign has raised about $1.5 million, most of it since July 1.
While Ritz's slimly funded campaign relies heavily on social media for word-of-mouth support, Bennett has already been able afford television advertising.
"Most teachers wanted to support (Ritz) just because she wasn't Tony Bennett," said Randy LePage, who teaches physical education at Wabash High School in northern Indiana.
Ritz has criticized Bennett for collecting out-of-state money she says comes from wealthy donors who back school privatization — Walton included — but the majority of Bennett's contributions come from within Indiana and tend to be hundreds of dollars larger than those received by Ritz.
"We have received some large contributions from out of state," Bennett conceded. But he attributes that to the buzz generated by Indiana's education overhaul, which he says has made the state a model for reform.
"It is (a model), but that's not good," said Dr. James P. Comer, a Yale professor who works with the Forum for Education and Democracy, a liberal education think tank. "There's no evidence those approaches work, especially for poor kids."
Critics say standardized testing works fine for children from middle- and upper-class families, but breaks down when it comes to serving less fortunate kids.
Studies on whether test scores increase when teachers get paid for performance are inconclusive. A recent study of teachers in an Illinois district found that it does, while other recent studies have found little or no benefit.
"The core issue is Indiana is the state where education reform has been met with academic achievement, and we believe we have a great foundation on which to build," Bennett said.
It's a foundation built largely on standardized testing, a practice Bennett defends but which Ritz maintains is depriving students of a deeper education.
Bennett points to an 8 percent improvement in standardized test scores over the past three years, but Ritz claims those measurements are skewed because the cutoff scores were changed .
"We signed up to teach, we didn't sign up to teach to test. And that's all that anybody's looking at," said Ritz, who is an award-winning teacher in Indianapolis.
Ritz's central concern, however, is that Bennett's policies will replace local control of schools with a state bureaucracy, opening the doors of public education to private companies whose main interest is in profits, not students.
Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which backs Ritz, shares her concern.
"We don't believe that schools should be turned into for-profit schools," Schnellenberger said. "Schools are there to serve the public and students, but not to be for-profit opportunities for in-state or out-of-state companies," he added.
Bennett, a former public school administrator, teacher and basketball coach, maintains that competition will make public schools better. Private companies that step in via vouchers or take over failing schools are still obligated to make the grade, he says.
"My bottom line is that students learn. And these companies have a very clear understanding that I will get my bottom line before they get their bottom line," Bennett said.
"I believe it's working," he said of the state's education overhaul. "But we have to remember, results are never final and reform is never finished."