Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. / Joe Vitti / The Star 2012 file photo
Tony Bennett's bluster was always his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
It got him elected as Indiana's top education boss in 2008 and it made him a hero in the eyes of reformers nationwide. It allowed him to brush aside the type of fierce criticism that would have scared most politicians into moderation. And it allowed him to push through, with a big assist from then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, a series of monumental education reforms.
But that bluster also led Bennett to pick fights that he shouldn't have, and to worsen and personalize the many battles that were necessary. Even those of us who appreciated his willingness to take on the establishment understood that Bennett's loudmouthed ways were sometimes counterproductive and harmful to the education movement he helped lead.
That bluster cost Bennett his job last November, when voters tossed him out in favor of Democrat Glenda Ritz, who at the time was a little-known educator and whose victory laid bare the fury Bennett had inspired among his critics. And now, it seems to me, Bennett's bluster, his desperate need to be right and to arrogantly prove it, is responsible for a devastating controversy that will forever color his reputation and legacy in Indiana, even among those of us who often supported his belief in shaking up the state's education establishment.
In case you missed it, Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press dropped a blockbuster story this week, one based on Bennett's own emails, which show an improper attempt to skew the state grades given to an Indianapolis charter school. The school, Christel House Academy on the Southside, is run by Christel DeHaan, an Indianapolis philanthropist who has opened schools across the world, winning praise for her efforts and her inspiring successes. She has also given generously to politicians, including Bennett. The state campaign finance database reports that Bennett's campaigns received well over $100,000 from DeHaan over the years.
According to the AP story, Bennett panicked when he learned that Christel House would receive a grade of C under his prized but controversial school-grading program. Writing to his top staffers, he said, "This will be a HUGE problem for us" and he ominously noted that "anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work." He said he was "more than a little miffed" by the score and wanted a way out of what he considered a political and public relations mess.
Why was it such a mess? Because Bennett had so often used Christel House as rock-solid, indisputable proof that charter schools were capable of miracles when it came to raising the academic achievement of low-income, at-risk students. For Bennett, there was no gray area, no room for compromise. He rightly and admirably believes that students can overcome their circumstances and succeed no matter what their Zip Code. He wanted to back that up with stories that sold.
His bold ways gave him strength, as many people were inspired by his blunt words and his barnstorming style, but it also left him vulnerable because, as we know, most complicated issues reside in the gray areas.
Now that the AP story is out, I certainly hope none of my fellow supporters of education reform try to dismiss and defend Bennett's words and actions. I stand by my support of his policies, and his belief in charters and high standards. But his words and actions in this case are at best troublesome, disheartening and far beneath the office he held.
Still, this was not likely about campaign money, as some have suggested. Bennett had many problems, but raising money was not one of them. He was a beloved national figure in the eyes of many and money flowed to his campaigns with ease from reformers and Republicans. He raised much more than Ritz in 2012 and could have raised more.
This was about bluster, about the need to be right.
Just listen to Bennett's words in those emails. He is worried not about DeHaan and campaign cash but about himself and his reputation. He is worried about having to acknowledge that perhaps he was wrong about something, that perhaps the debates in education are not as black and white as some would like to believe. He talks self-consciously of how hard he worked to sell top-ranking legislators and others on the work being done at Christel House -- a stellar school, by the way, whose work he should have understood wasn't undermined by one middling grade.
There was a great documentary released in 2010 called "Waiting for Superman," its title based on the idea that many in education are waiting for a superhero to fly in and save a class, a school or a district.
Similarly, people such as Bennett want to be able to show that there are quick-fix cure-alls to the problems that plague many American schools. They find schools such as DeHaan's and sometimes exaggerate their ability to solve all of our problems. While there are amazing schools accomplishing amazing things for students, the underlying challenges facing at-risk kids never go away. So with great advances, there will also be occasionally slips and setbacks.
And that's OK. Bennett, now a top education leader in Florida, should have trusted and not manipulated his department's data. If there was a problem with the underlying grading system, he should have more openly discussed it. He should have understood that a disappointing grade for a school he loved was, at its core, an incentive to work harder. He should have been honest with the people he served.
But bluster got in the way. And with this new story, the damage is widespread. It doesn't just hurt Bennett's legacy -- and it does do that -- it also makes it harder for every reformer out there to keep fighting in the face of the intense criticism and challenges that never go away.