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Bennett falls at hands of two masters

Hoosiers reject superintendent’s ceding of local control

Following Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s upset loss to Glenda Ritz (52 percent to 48 percent), the pundits have been throwing theories back and forth as to the reasons for his demise. Some point to the backlash over national Common Core standards. Some say people judged Bennett’s policies on high-stakes testing and teacher and school accountability as being flawed and counterproductive. So who is right?

Bennett seemingly had everything on his side. He was the incumbent. He had vastly more money. He had the support of a popular sitting governor. The state’s dominant Republican Party supported him, and he was the darling of many conservative education reformers and philanthropists. He was a national figure among education policy groups.

What the pundits are missing, though, is that a common thread ties their theories together. Bennett lost because he turned toward Washington and special interest groups and turned his back on the people. Under the principles of federalism and the Indiana Constitution, Bennett should have been taking direction from the people of Indiana. But it was clear that he was not.

With the advent of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2001, followed by President Obama’s Race to the Top, Common Core and NCLB waiver programs, we have been under constant pressure to surrender education decision-making to Washington and its trade association partners. Every aspect of voter disdain can be traced to the requirements imposed by federal programs such as the Race to the Top Fund Assessment Grant and the NCLB waiver.

For instance, the Obama administration and Bennett marketed the waivers as providing relief for Indiana, but really it is a coercive program. In return for a temporary pass on NCLB requirements (themselves onerous), the federal government demanded that we accept its “reform” agenda.

So with which of Bennett’s policies do you take issue? Is it the adoption of the national Common Core standards or the new high-stakes student test? Was it frustration over new evaluation and accountability metrics to qualify teacher pay and school grades? The federal Department of Education is the mother (and special interests the grandmother) of all these unpopular aspects of the Bennett administration. Bennett didn’t fight them. Rather than working with teachers and parents to help teachers practice their estimable profession, he eagerly turned his back on us all. He had no faith in the people.

The Bennett fiasco brought an exceptionally nasty rebuke from Matthew Ladner, policy adviser to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Opponents of Common Core, Ladner wrote at a popular blog, “have revealed themselves to be unsophisticated ya-hoos (sic).” A little further on, Ladner repeats the thought if not his own spelling by referring to “right-wing Hoosier yayhoos (sic).” In explaining Bennett’s loss, Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute was more civil in his disdain for Indiana voters. He advocates for this “reform agenda” but recognizes the truth that it does “not appeal to middle-class and suburban voters.”

Elitists just don’t believe in the American Experiment. Ladner, like Bennett, doesn’t want to listen to the people because he has no faith in them. That skepticism makes them look elsewhere.

It’s no surprise that at the root of it all, Bennett, Hess and Bush are all funded, or otherwise connected to groups funded by, the same elitists who spawned Obama’s reform agenda. But on any one issue, you can’t have two masters. You can’t look to the federal government and the people of Indiana. That’s where federalism comes in.

Now the Indiana legislature and Gov.-elect Mike Pence have a choice to make. Will they look to the people or will they look to Washington and the special interests?

As for Ladner and his ilk, I note that long ago, the British disdainfully called the patriots “Yankee Doodles,” and they mocked George Washington as an ignoramus. So go ahead. Call me a yahoo. But if you paint my portrait, make sure you show me holding the Declaration of Independence in one hand and the Constitution in the other.

Erin Tuttle is a volunteer for children and education issues in Indianapolis. She is partnering with national and local groups to promote education policy issues that strengthen students, parents and teachers. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.