Friday, August 2, 2013

Looking Back on Tony Bennett's Short, High-Profile Political Career

Tony Bennett
The headlines broke on Thursday morning.

Tony Bennett decided to step down from his position as Florida Education Commissioner just a day after getting a "heckuva job Brownie"-like vote of confidence from Florida Governor Rick Scott.  The former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction had gotten a huge raise and seemingly less accountability to the voters after losing his seat to Glenda Ritz in the 2012 General Election.

Who knew it would be his old job in Indiana that would finally bring about his undoing?  He still isn't really taking responsibility.  Just Wednesday, Bennett was appearing on talk shows and defending the actions of his DOE in changing the Christel House's A-F school grade from a C to an A after the Associated Press released a string of e-mails.

Bennett's fall was as fast as his rise.  We were introduced to Tony Bennett in 2008.  He became the GOP's nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  With Mitch Daniels beside him, Bennett ran on a platform of bringing discipline back into the classroom.  His 2008 speech accepting the nomination did not signal much.  It certainly didn't signal the sound of the reformer he would become.

Of course, Indiana in 2008 was much different than the Indiana we know today.  While Mitch Daniels held the Governor's Office, Democrats held the majority of seats in the Indiana House.  Democrats would maintain their majority, but Bennett would narrowly defeat Richard Wood by only two percentage points, 51-49 percent.

Bennett took office in January of 2009.  I first blogged on him as Superintendent of Public Instruction in July of 2009.  The Indianapolis Star had cautioned Bennett to slow down on his education reform train, and I urged him to be less of a dictator and more of a consensus builder.  I wrote, "On reform...I think that rather than an edict from Mount Daniels, we need to work together on a plan that's best for Indiana students. It's about the students and not about how quickly we can move to reform schools."

He didn't take my advice.  He didn't work together with hardly anyone.  Dr. Bennett was going to do things his way which was also Mitch Daniels' way, and he did.  By the time he got majorities in the Indiana House and Senate sympathetic to his cause, Indiana was on a fast track to ALEC-led reformville.  The pace picked up.  Some even would argue that it was faster than his own department could handle.

His political support began to erode.  By the time we got to November, it was about to be
over for Bennett in Indiana.  He wasn't out of work for long.  He accepted the Florida appointment to the state's education chief fresh with a ton more cash and a supportive Governor.  Now, he's lost that job, too.

I don't revel in Bennett's resignation.  I really don't, but it is a case study in believing in your own brand too much.  I don't know where the story will go from here.  I just know that it's going to take years to clean up the mess that Bennett left here and in Florida.


Anonymous said...

I attended a Parent Council meeting in our school district a few years ago in which TB was a guest. It was clear after many challenging and legitimate questions from parents and educators that he was totally uninterested in anyone's concerns regarding education reform and the impact it was going to have on public education. He was arrogant, agitated, and rude. After agreeing to another guest appearance a year or two after this initial meeting, he canceled last minute and declined to reschedule. Seeing him self-implode is no big surprise.

Parents and educators wanted a leader who cared about working together and that is why he lost the election...too bad he never understood that.

Anonymous said...

Your comment has been echoed by many others that I've read about, mostly from teachers and parents. As a public school teacher, I got sick and tired of hearing about how I was part of the problem. When he spoke to a meeting at Fairfield High School (Goshen) in 2011, he said "I don't want it written on my gravestone that I caused the death of public education in Indiana."

To me, having Bennett as the State Superintendent was like a being a soldier fired upon by his own general. Even while ripping into teachers and unions, he would give us weasel words about how professional the teachers are in Indiana. We knew he was full of it; and he never tried to prove us wrong.