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August 5, 2013

HOWEY: THe hollow facade of Tony Bennett

NASHVILLE, Ind. — There was a basketball gym-style scoreboard outside of then-Supt. Tony Bennett’s Statehouse office in July 2009. A clock ticked off the time remaining in his term. The score showed Indiana’s high school graduation rate at 77.8 percent.

Bennett informed me that by the end of his term in 2012, Indiana would have a 90 percent graduation rate.

I found Bennett’s goals ambitious, even aggressive. His confidence was as audacious as that of NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

Over the three decades of covering Indiana politics and public policy, the high school graduation rate had always been in that 70th percentile. Bennett was promising to reach the 90th percentile in just four short years, coming without any significant increase in school funding. While then-Gov. Mitch Daniels had side-stepped then-Speaker Pat Bauer’s aversion to education reform by seeking changes administratively from 2007 through 2010, the real thrust of the Daniels/Bennett change didn’t pass until April 2011. 

It was then that the number of charter schools increased, the voucher program began, and there were mold-splitting reforms in school and teacher grading that included the “A through F” program, and the credentialing of principals and superintendents. Bennett had made other changes early in his term, such as ending half days and teacher training changing to emphasize the topics they would teach. 

Lo and behold, in 2011 the Indiana graduation rate officially stood at 86.61 percent, and in Bennett’s final year in office, at a stunning 88.38 percent. It was astonishingly close to Bennett’s goal.

If these results were too good to be true, when you mined down into other data related to public education, you could see problems in the metrics. In 2006, Indiana University noted that of the 92,624 freshmen entering the state’s higher education system in 2003-04, some 23.3 percent had to take remedial courses. Essentially, this means their prep training was below university standards.

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