Just 100 days into office, the former basketball coach has sparked controversy by telling schools they can no longer count snow days and teacher development time toward the 180 days required for student instruction. He’s championed more charter schools and supported a tax credit on private-school donations that some call a back door to vouchers.
He’s worked with Indiana’s teachers’ union to give teachers immunity from civil lawsuits for trying to discipline students. But he’s also promised to take on the union to get merit-based pay into Indiana schools.
Bennett, 48, discussed with IBJ his game plan for Indiana’s 1,850 public schools. What follows is an edited transcript.
IBJ: How many times have people joked about your name and Tony Bennett the singer?
BENNETT: In my life? Wow! For 47 years, I hated my mom and dad over that. There has been one year of my life where I thought it was the greatest thing they ever did. That was the year running a statewide campaign.
IBJ: What role do you see for the business community to help improve education in Indiana?
BENNETT: We need our business community to encourage their best employees to become involved in schools, especially at the school board level, but also through mentoring, volunteering in different ways in schools. We’ve got to have very uncomfortable discussions with business leaders and school leaders at the table.
IBJ: You recently set goals of 90-percent graduation rates and 90-percent pass rates on the ISTEP-by the end of your first term. What’s your game plan to get to that goal?
BENNETT: There are really two very important cornerstones. One is a world-class reading program. The other piece of that is a world-class math program. Also, it is creating a career and technical education program that has rigor and relevance to kids. This is all about having multiple pathways for success.
IBJ: Does the DOE have the capacity or authority to make the necessary changes in those areas?
BENNETT: We have the ability to be a source authority in those areas. We should be the clearinghouse where teachers go to find lesson plans for helping students master the best math standards in the country. We have to have the most innovative and up-to-date reading techniques. But the other place the department has to be is, it has to hold schools accountable when they do not perform.
IBJ: You have said that if schools aren’t up to snuff, you will have the state intervene. Why?
BENNETT: We have to. The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, does it do the children of our state justice to not take responsibility that the schools that serve them are high-performing? The Department of Education has to feel a sense of responsibility in terms of holding schools and school corporations accountable for the academic achievement and the career preparation of their students.
IBJ: What happens if the state doesn’t reach your 90-percent goals? Should the voters yank you out of the game?
BENNETT: That’ll be their decision. We get up every morning thinking how we’re going to meet those goals. The one trap I did not want to get into was saying, “I fear my re-election, so I’m going to hedge my bets.” In four years, we’ll let the report card speak for itself.
IBJ: When you were basketball coach at Scottsburg High School, your team won 68 percent of its games. That’s pretty good for sports. But here you are holding out a 90-percent goal for schools. I say this tongue in cheek, but should you have been yanked?
BENNETT: We were pretty successful at Scottsburg. Competing has never bothered me. I want to impose the same pressure on the department and on the school corporations that I felt as a basketball coach. I could look up at the scoreboard for 32 minutes every Friday and Saturday night, and I knew who was winning and losing. If we’re going to cultivate that culture of excellence for academic achievement, we have to have that same pressure coaches feel every day. And that is, we have to succeed or there will likely be someone to come in behind us to take our place.
IBJ: You’ve been pretty blunt about your goals. Are you concerned about ruffling too many feathers, so people start blocking what you want to do?
BENNETT: Well, I don’t think about it. If my delivery becomes an obstacle for improving education for our children, then this has become an adult argument. This has become about people saying, “Well, I don’t like that adult, so kids get compromised.” This whole thing should never be about Tony Bennett. This is the future of our state.
IBJ: Teacher quality was a big campaign issue for you. Do you mean that the product that is being turned out from education departments at Indiana’s colleges and universities isn’t good enough?
BENNETT: Yes, yes and yes. We have far too many teachers that are just a page or two ahead of their students. There’s nothing more important than an inspired and an inspiring teacher. And I think the vast majority of the professionals in our vocation are just that. But we also have a small minority that aren’t, and I think we have an obligation to our children to help those people find new professions.
IBJ: To improve teacher quality, don’t you need to pay teachers more?
BENNETT: Absolutely. I had the honor of teaching next to and with and supervising some of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known. And I think it’s an injustice I had to pay them the same amount as the person who’s not getting the job done. Why can’t I pay them more?
IBJ: Teachers’ unions have steadfastly opposed that idea. Will you go to the mat with the teachers’ union to get merit pay?
BENNETT: Absolutely. We have to. We have to. I think most teachers believe that the best should be paid like they’re the best. Should that be based on a test score? There needs to be the understanding that it does involve multiple measures.
IBJ: House Democrats have pushed a moratorium on charter schools this year. Why do you think Indiana should have even more charter schools than the 49 it currently does?
BENNETT: When I was superintendent of Greater Clark County Schools, I needed private schools, I needed charterschools. Because in many instances, they could provide services I couldn’t. If my number one concern is about the child, I should care [more] about making sure that child’s needs are met than making sure my needs are met.
IBJ: Since charters receive public dollars, aren’t they sucking money from traditional public schools?
BENNETT: Is it important that our education system, which we want to be the best in the United States, looks like it does today? Or is it more important that we have the best education system? So what if the traditional public schools don’t look like they do today? If we’re serving the needs of our children, that is the most important aspect. •