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Voices: What Indiana's ed reform upset means

The Independence Institute’s Ben DeGrow says Colorado school reformers should pay attention to last week’s Election Day loss for Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Indiana’s election results sent shockwaves Tuesday throughout the education reform world. Widely known for his bold and assertive stances on school choice and accountability, state Superintendent Tony Bennett was narrowly upended by a weakly-funded challenger.

While Mitt Romney easily secured the Hoosier State’s 11 electoral votes and conservative Mike Pence triumphed to succeed Republican reformer Mitch Daniels as governor, newly-minted Democrat Glenda Ritz gathered political support from the left and the right to upend Bennett.

Leading reform voices have been left to ponder what the result means.

In diagnosing the right’s lukewarm support of Bennett’s re-election, a growing consensus has emerged. Leading lights from RiShawn Biddle to Michael Petrilli fret over what they are inclined to see as a conservative backlash against Indiana leaders’ embrace of the Common Core standards. One key data point suggests this factor played a role, but to go beyond would be largely speculative.

In August 2010 the Colorado State Board of Education narrowly agreed to adopt the Common Core, with Republican Randy DeHoff joining three Democrats in support. While the hoped-for federal Race to the Top funds never materialized, the process to implement the regional standards and assessments moves forward. Still, the Indiana results may bring the debate back to life in Colorado as it has in a few other states.

The State Board has begun to look closely at the impacts of increasing federal and regional influence and power within our K-12 system. Common Core supporters may have to confront concerns about weakening local school board and parental (even more local) control in education. Daunting arguments cannot be easily swept away by the promise of more federal money.

Will “Obama Core” become a political rallying cry for the Right in any way like Obamacare has done? Will a possible 10th Amendment-style showdown looming in Colorado over marijuana legalization spill over to a kind of independent sentiment in schooling, as well?

But these considerations just beg the question of whether Common Core is really the culprit that took down Indiana’s superintendent and whether it really threatens to fracture the school reform coalition.

Ever the contrarian, AEI’s Rick Hess hits on a theme he has addressed before, arguing that Bennett’s defeat undercuts the assumption “that Republicans can be counted on to support all types of popular reforms.” He suggests some suburban, middle-class voters may have been distressed by “disruptive” changes Bennett helped to champion, including the statewide Choice Scholarship Program. (In fairness, Hess also sees the growing unpopularity of Common Core as an important factor.)

The conclusion of the diagnosis could have real impacts in Colorado. To the extent Hess’ analysis might be correct, Douglas County reformers should take heed. Supporters of expansive parental choice and performance-based innovation have won two rounds of school board elections, but all eyes are on 2013. Messaging and outreach will be important.

Status quo interest groups, which made up the core of Ritz’s upset victory in Indiana, are eager to regain power and undo Douglas County’s advances. Since school board races are nominally nonpartisan, any Republicans they recruit to run against the reform majority will not have to follow Ritz’s lead and change registration.

Interestingly enough, at the same time Ritz’s teacher-backed insurgency prevailed, a Democrats for Education Reform-backed reform slate took strong control of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But that result offers less consolation to Dougco than to Denver reformers, whose urban education transformation project does not depend directly on political sway from the right.

For reformers, the consolation in Ritz’s victory is that she will be greatly constrained in what she can do to undermine existing choice and accountability programs. And no doubt Bennett, if he so desires, soon will find himself in a similar position in some other state, probably Florida. But the implications clearly extend beyond Indiana and the election’s central players.

Which presents a greater challenge in Colorado: a Common Core controversy causing partisan cracks in a state-level reform consensus, or potential conservative fuel for a union-orchestrated backlash against Dougco’s transformative suburban school innovation? Of these developments, does either or both reflect serious jeopardy?

It all depends how you read the results of last week’s Indiana election and how much you believe its lessons may apply 1,000 miles away. But it is now clear enough to see that, in K-12 education politics as in many other spheres, the reliability of governing majorities and coalitions cannot be taken for granted.

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