State School Candidates: Cautious, Optimistic

September 9, 2008

For release Aug. 11 and thereafter

 by Andrea Neal

After 16 years under Suellen Reed, Hoosiers will get a new school superintendent next year. While neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate appears ready to suggest radical change, both say Indiana schools should be better.

Republican Tony Bennett, superintendent of Greater Clark County Schools, considers Indiana in the middle nationally and “I am never good with being in the middle of the pack.” His goal is “making Indiana the best education state in the nation.”

Democrat Richard Wood, newly retired superintendent of the Tippecanoe School Corp., said, “Education is a chase; it’s not a station. You’re always going to be on a quest to improve your performance.”

The winner of the election will head a Department of Education that has raised academic standards during Reed’s 16 years in office but that has avoided making political waves. It has not pushed for any of the more controversial proposals for improving schools: parental choice, performance pay for teachers, longer school days, longer school years.

In interviews, neither Wood nor Bennett revealed whether they would make political waves if elected. But on the issue of school choice – the notion that parents should be allowed to choose where their children go to school – they displayed varying degrees of openness.

Wood oversaw an open enrollment district, which means that families could send their child to any public school in Tippecanoe Schools as long as it had available spots and they could provide the transportation. In addition, his corporation has inter-district agreements that allow students to enroll in neighboring West Lafayette and Lafayette schools. Out of 12,000 students, about 260 would opt to leave the district for an adjoining system in a typical year. The message to parents was, “If you find a better option we want you to take it,” Wood said.

Wood acknowledged his district lost some students to West Lafayette based on its high test scores alone, but he considered the agreements a “win-win” situation and is “supportive” of voluntary public school choice. Wood said he would not support a state mandate to require inter-district choice nor would he advocate using public dollars to fund private school tuition because of concern over funding religious schools, which he believes the state and federal constitutions prohibit.

Bennett’s school district does not offer open enrollment, but he said he got a good taste of it while serving as principal of Prosser School of Technology in New Albany, a vocational school that serves students from 25 high schools, most of them public. The “sending” school corporation is responsible for paying the student’s tuition, which Bennett describes as “the ultimate example of a public voucher.”

Bennett said he welcomes competition and free market forces. “Given the right resources, and I’m not talking strictly about money, I think public schools can compete very well against each other and I think they can compete against anybody.” He stopped short of endorsing vouchers and tax credits to help families pay for private schools, saying, “It always comes down to legislation.”

Here’s what the candidates said on other key issues:

No Child Left Behind — Wood said the “concept is admirable but the way that it’s designed is flawed.” The major flaw in the federal law is that school districts can make great progress and still be deemed as not meeting targets if a single subgroup of students falls short. Bennett said, “I am a strong proponent of school accountability. NCLB provides a framework for accountability.” Like Wood, he said the law might need tweaking for assessing students with special needs.

ISTEP — Bennett said, “Now that it’s in the spring, it truly gives us an opportunity to take a look at student growth.” Wood said, “ISTEP is one valuable tool for assisting progress in schools . . . We don’t want to get into the mindset you only judge (students and schools) by their test scores.”

Collective Bargaining — Wood said, “I’ve been through the collective bargaining wars. I would not, in my role as school superintendent, be one to change collective bargaining laws.” Bennett sidestepped the question, noting he’s been a negotiator and he’s been an administrator so he knows how it works. “I have not run into teachers nor have I run into administrators who do not put the kids’ interests first.”

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her


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