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“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Perhaps no one in recent Indiana history better exemplifies Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” more than Tony Bennett.
Visitors to his office in the Statehouse during the Bennett years were greeted by a Teddy Roosevelt portrait, a gift from a student at the Signature School in Evansville after Bennett spoke at the school’s graduation.
Signature is an unusual school in that it is a public charter school created by and operated within an existing public school corporation. It is also listed annually on U.S. News and World Report’s best high schools in America list.
Many school corporation leaders despise charters and view them as unwanted competition, but school leaders in Vanderburgh County embraced the freedom and flexibility charter schools offered and established their own. Then they made it one of the best charter schools on the planet.
They did this before Tony Bennett was superintendent of public instruction, which is one good sign that efforts to push for new and inventive education policies will survive beyond Bennett, because they also predated him.
But in his four years as superintendent, Bennett championed charter schools, school accountability, and licensing reform to get subject matter experts into classrooms and ensure teachers had mastery of the subjects they teach.
He insisted on taking action to turn around the chronically failing schools in our state, much to the chagrin of the local school districts who had managed these chronically failing schools into the ground for decades.
He pushed for merit pay for high-achieving teachers and to end policies that punished the youngest (and often best) teachers when school corporations had layoffs due to student population decreases. He pushed for anything he thought would give students the advantages and opportunities they deserved.
Almost all of these things were controversial with the teachers unions and many teachers. But they’re also things that we would automatically do if we were collectively tasked as a society with starting an educational system from scratch.
But Bennett wasn’t starting from scratch. He was trying to reform and reposition an educational industrial complex funded by more than half of every state tax dollar collected annually.
You can ruffle a lot of feathers when you take on the status quo. Bennett called them like he saw them. Sometimes his reforms angered teachers and were embraced by principals and superintendents. Other reforms were despised by administrators and favored by teachers. Bennett didn’t mind going up against either side; he thought his job was to always be on the side of the kids.
With Bennett’s vindication last week of charges made by The Associated Press’s Tom LoBianco, the state finds itself at a precipitous place in terms of education.
New Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a former Indiana State Teachers Association
union leader, has made clear that her agenda is undoing the Bennett reforms of the last four years despite evidence that they are working.
Graduation rates are at an all-time high, having increased each of the four years Bennett served. ISTEP+ scores are also up, four years running. So is the number of students taking and passing rigorous Advanced Placement courses and exams. But we have not heard Ritz celebrating any of these successes. Ritz has sought to bury the good news.
Bennett pushed hard for improvements in student achievement against an establishment that doesn’t like to be pushed. And who does like to be pushed? And he did it all the while fully conscious that it might cost him his job.
Ultimately, it did cost him his job, two of them, but that’s what it means to be “man in the arena.”
Hoosiers should endeavor to keep moving forward with the policies that will provide the best results for our kids and not give in to the change-resistance adults who don’t want to be pushed. Our kids deserve it.
Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He also worked at the Department of Education for former Superintendent Tony Bennett. He is a graduate of Franklin College. He can be reached at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.
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