“I actually like to floss.”
So many things have been said and written about Charles Anthony Bennett this past week. Reports surrounding his involvement in Indiana’s A-F grading system have been everywhere and extended well beyond the realm of education wonks. Seeing your close friends and former colleagues on the front pages is not new to me, but the speed at which folks’ existing impressions of Tony (positive or negative) have been repeated and reinforced across all venues is nonetheless a reminder that public service is not for the faint of heart.
Amidst all the commotion, I would suggest that the five words above—calmly spoken a couple years back over an early morning cup of coffee in the Indiana statehouse—illustrate exactly who Tony Bennett is.
K-12 education does not suffer from a lack of viable solutions to its challenges. Republicans and Democrats do not agree on all the finer points either within their own party or with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, but the necessary changes (empowering and rewarding great teachers, holding schools accountable, providing robust choices to families) are relatively straightforward.
The issue has always been the political willpower to do what must be done. And that’s why Tony Bennett is a man whom individuals far more talented than myself have been willing to run through a wall for.
The man likes to floss.
Over the past several years, his children have graduated from great schools. He has become a grandfather for the first time and has two parents that anyone would be fortunate to spend time with. He is every bit as happy at a high school basketball game as he is at dinner with national leaders (probably happier at the former, now that I think of it). Why in the world would he sign up for an elected job in Indiana that would subject his credibility and his family to the sternest tests, or version 2.0 of that job in Florida?
The man likes to floss.
The Baby Boomers began retiring in 2008. The supply of high-caliber, career-limited women (including nuns) who helped educate a generation of immigrant families in the early 20th century is not going to be resurrected anytime soon. The NAEP data and the changing nature of America’s workforce tell us that time is running short.
You can see the urgency in the man’s eyes, hear it in his voice. Tony didn’t need the voucher program for his family. He visited many terrific schools in both Florida and Indiana, and could have spent his entire time doing so. He didn’t need to go into the schools where hope had left the station many years back, or the heated town hall meetings where he was emphatically told that a school where two-thirds of students couldn’t read was not broken (though the parents who approached him afterwards knew that it was). Young teachers whose excellence was being ignored when payday arrived weren’t on his doorstep, because they’d never known that a better way was possible.
Tony didn’t need the hassle. He took on these fights because they were the right ones.
Tony has often said that Superintendent Ritz won her race fair and square. He is absolutely right, and both the power and accountability for results are now hers. But her calls for consensus and re-examination of Indiana’s policies must not be allowed to obscure the need for accountability and improved performance. The United States cannot continue to release under-educated, under-qualified graduates into the workforce and expect that everything will be fine.
G.K. Chesterton once said that tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe anything. I applaud Tony Bennett’s intolerance of mediocrity, excuses, and political expedience. May we all strive to do justice to his legacy.
About the author
Neil serves as a State Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Contact Neil atNeil@ExcelInEd.org.