By JEROD CLAPP
The incumbent for Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction made his case for re-election Wednesday at Ivy Tech Community College.
Tony Bennett, the Republican candidate for the state’s top education seat, defended many of the policies he’s come under fire for implementing and explained his position on vouchers, teacher evaluations and other questions in the town-hall style meeting.
Bennett pointed out that more than 55 percent of the state’s total budget goes to public education, which he saw as a reason for more attention and thought to be given to schools.
“Given the fact that our education system is primarily responsible for being the state’s economic driver, I think we have a huge fiscal, moral and economic responsibility to make sure our students are the best educated in the United States, and that’s what this discussion is about,” Bennett said.
He said the state’s new Choice Scholarships program — a voucher system that allows parents to send their children to other districts or private and charter schools by at least offsetting some tuition costs — gives families the opportunity to choose a school that works best for them.
The voucher program has come under fire by school districts because of the money it takes from them in already tough financial times, in which many districts continually face cuts year after year amounting to millions of dollars.
He said while he could afford the costs of sending his children to another school district or private school, he thought the playing field should be evened out.
“The idea of school choice gives people who can’t afford to have those choices the same choices that I have,” Bennett said. “And I say what’s wrong with that?”
He also discussed teacher evaluations, another policy that has sent flak in the direction of his office. Teachers have raised concerns about how fair those evaluations would be, especially if low-ability students in their classrooms weren’t performing well in standardized testing.
But he said the state backed off from developing a model to be pushed on districts all over Indiana. Instead, he said many of the metrics and the weight they carry — including student growth rather than just performance — are left up to district officials as long as they fall within the law.
While teachers, parents and district administrators have criticized his reform methods, Bennett said he doesn’t let it get him down. He said he understands that many of his critics believe they’re fighting for the best interests of children as he does.
“I think first and foremost, we have to start with the idea that there are very intelligent people on all sides of this issue,” Bennett said. “I will be the first to tell you that there are some very intelligent people who philosophically differ with me and I respect that, admire that, I have no problem with that.”
While he faces an opponent, Glenda Ritz, in the November election, he said he hasn’t and doesn’t want to run a negative campaign, but focus on the issues and give students more opportunities for quality education.
“One of the things I want you to hear is I see this experience as a job interview,” Bennett said. “You are employers. And one of the things I hope you’ve heard is that never once, I haven’t criticized the other people running for this job.”