Tony Bennett Has All the Answers

Or so his many supporters say. And his efforts to overhaul public education have enjoyed some success and drawn national attention. But as Indiana’s schools chief has learned, changing things means you’ll have a few playground fights along the way.

Editor’s Note, August 1, 2013: Tony Bennett resigned today from his position as Florida’s education commissioner. Previously, despite outspending his opponent, Glenda Ritz, by a 10-to-1 margin, he was unseated as Indiana’s schools czar on Nov. 6, 2012. Here, our September 2011 feature profile on the man who catalyzed a lot of visceral responses—both for and against him—among parents, educators, and, finally, voters.

Tony Bennett is bounding across his sprinkler-drenched front lawn, in a sleepy Noblesville subdivision, on a steamy Friday morning. Most days, at 5 o’clock sharp, he takes a 4-mile run. When he was on the track team in high school, Bennett ran the quarter-mile in about 50 seconds. Last year, as a 50th-birthday present to himself, he bought a plane ticket to Washington, D.C., in order to run the Marine Corps Marathon. He is almost constantly in motion.

In mesh shorts and a gray T-shirt, Bennett leaps out of his yard and onto the pavement. It is already 4:59 a.m., and if there is one thing Bennett hates more than standing still, it’s falling behind schedule. “I always kind of lived by the thought,” he says, in a Southern Indiana drawl, “that your golden years, and that short period of time when you’re lying on your deathbed, are the times you should slow down and reflect.”

Bennett, a former high-school science teacher, administrator, and basketball coach, was first sworn in as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2009. His tenure as the state’s chief education officer has been marked by the same kind of relentless drive that compels him to rise nearly every morning, before dawn, and run while most of his constituents are still asleep. He has barked, cajoled, and scolded Indiana’s public schools toward meeting tough new goals in graduation rates and standardized testing. Earlier this year, he led the push for a dramatic—and controversial—overhaul of Indiana’s education system, and later announced that for the first time in history, the state would be intervening in seven chronically low-performing schools across the state, including six in Indianapolis. His efforts have drawn national attention—and a lot of fire.

In September, Bennett will deliver his annual State of Education Address, a tradition he started last year. Parents, pols, educators, labor leaders, and reporters will watch with interest and—in the case of his staunch and vociferous detractors—dread to learn what else Bennett has in his lesson plan. And as he looks toward the possibility of mounting a run next year for a second term in office, opinions on his accomplishments remain deeply divided: Is he, as his avid supporters gush, the Superman the state’s middling schools have been waiting for? Or a villain bent on destroying public education?

What is certain is that Bennett has no intention of slowing down. The rest of the pack will just have to try to keep up.

Tony Bennett was born in Jeffersonville, in Southern Indiana. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Clarksville, where he attended private Catholic schools, Saint Anthony as an elementary student and then Our Lady of Providence High School. His parents were both staunch Democrats, his father a union electrician, his mother a Kennedy Democrat from New England. Keith Henderson, a political ally and childhood friend, remembers Bennett as a skilled basketball player, a strong quarter-miler, and “a fierce competitor.”

In the spring of Bennett’s senior year, he and Henderson volunteered to lead a near-by seventh-and-eighth-grade girls’ basketball team. “I always tease him that I gave him his start in coaching,” says Henderson. It was coaching—“the most pure form of teaching,” in Bennett’s estimation—that would later inspire Bennett to pursue a career in the field of education.

In his inaugural speech, Bennett paraphrased the pep talk he used to give his basketball team: “Guys, let’s lace ’em up, play our guts out, and win.”

Bennett married in 1981 and returned to Our Lady of Providence in 1983, teaching biology while finishing a bachelor’s degree in secondary education at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany (where he eventually received a master’s degree before completing a doctorate at Spalding University, in Kentucky). In 1990, after coaching the Providence boys’ basketball team for three seasons (his record was “pathetic,” he says), he resigned his high-school gig in the hopes of landing the assistant head coach’s position at Hanover College, near Madison. When he did not get the job, Bennett—by then the father of four children, all under the age of 5—found himself unemployed. He worked at a local bank that summer to make ends meet, chasing down borrowers who had fallen behind on their auto notes; every few Sundays, under the cover of darkness, he would repossess the vehicles of the most delinquent (an experience that his critics might now find particularly apropos).

After a brief teaching stint in Ohio, Bennett signed on as head coach of the Scottsburg High School boys’ basketball team. He went on to win four sectional titles over a six-year span. While coaching at Scottsburg, Bennett and his first wife divorced, and in 1995 Bennett met his second wife, Tina—then the girls’ basketball coach at nearby Salem High School—and the two married the following year.
High-school coaching gave Bennett his first taste of controversy. During the 1995–’96 basketball season, reports surfaced that some of his players had been drinking at a party hosted at the house of Bennett’s assistant coach.

The incident split the community: Some thought the players were guilty and shouldn’t receive special treatment; others refused to believe the players had done anything wrong. “It came down to my inability to institutionally control the program,” Bennett says. “I was ultimately accountable.” He refrained from punishing the players, citing lack of evidence, but fired the assistant coach and benched himself for two games. Bennett would go on to serve as the school’s principal.

By 2001, Bennett was the assistant superintendent for New Albany–Floyd County Consolidated Schools. Around the same time, his boyhood friend Henderson, then an attorney, was running for Floyd County prosecutor. Bennett helped him by organizing a golf-scramble fundraiser—his first foray into politics. Although he was raised in a Democratic household (the “conservative wing” of the party, he says), Bennett’s political leanings had since run Republican, and Henderson, also a Republican, began to notice that Bennett was growing into his job as a top-level administrator, having handled a school board and guided a highly sensitive collective-bargaining process with teachers.

Bennett was also developing some strong beliefs about the state’s education system. Public-school administrators needed some of the flexibility in negotiating with teachers that their private-school counterparts enjoyed, he thought. Students whose needs weren’t being met by traditional public schools should have access to private or charter schools. And the time-honored Hoosier value of “local control”—the idea that individual school districts should have broad authority to determine how to best educate their students—needed revamping.

As Bennett saw it, Indiana should have loftier ambitions. “We didn’t have high expectations,” he says. “We didn’t have any accountability. And we had all the structure in the middle that said, ‘We’re going to prescribe how you do everything,’ and people would mistake having no expectations and no accountability for having local control.” Though the ideas mostly fell in line with the national Republican Party agenda at the time, Bennett says he arrived at them independently and doesn’t like looking at policy through a partisan lens. “I’ve never really thought of my ideals as being Republican ideals, as much as I just thought they were common-sense ways to improve education,” he says.

In 2007, Henderson learned that Suellen Reed, Indiana’s 16-year veteran superintendent of public instruction, wouldn’t be running for reelection. Henderson and a small circle of friends presented Bennett with the idea of running for statewide elected office and, over his initial objections, eventually convinced him to consider it. Early the next year, Bennett met Todd Huston, then the state Republican party treasurer, at the Scottsburg Cracker Barrel, just off of I-65. Huston had heard of Bennett’s interest in running and wanted to take the measure of the man. He was impressed. “It was like being with the mayor of Scottsburg,” Huston says. “Everybody came up to the table to say hello.”

Bennett ran against Democrat Richard Wood, who had served as superintendent of Tippecanoe School Corporation in Lafayette for 19 years. Bennett, recently promoted to schools superintendent in Clark County but still a political novice, hurled himself into campaigning. “He was everywhere,” Henderson says. “He was an extremely hard campaigner. He put a lot of miles on his car.” There wasn’t a rubber-chicken dinner he missed, friends and advisers say. “I would leave my office, travel to wherever I needed to travel, be back at night, and then go to work the next morning, putting in 18 to 20 hours a day,” Bennett says. On the trail, he played readily on the fact that he shared his name with the famous crooner.

The first time most voters saw Tony Bennett was in a series of television ads that aired in the run-up to the November 2008 election, in which Bennett appeared with Governor Mitch Daniels. The two talked about giving teachers more authority to discipline students and decreasing school districts’ administrative costs in order to channel more money into classrooms. His advisers told him to tone down his support for controversial private-school voucher policies during the campaign, but Bennett pushed back. At one debate, he proclaimed himself “a strong proponent of competition” and made no bones about his support for funding private schools with public money; Woods, his opponent, called the notion “unconstitutional.”

Bennett went on to win the election with 51 percent of the vote, in a preview of the bitterly contested battles that awaited him in the Statehouse. In his inaugural speech on January 12, 2009, Bennett delivered a close paraphrase of the pre-game pep talk he used to give his basketball team at Scottsburg High: “Guys, let’s lace ’em up, play our guts out, and win.”

Shortly after his swearing-in as state superintendent, Bennett decorated his otherwise august second-floor Statehouse office, and the hallway outside, with large flat-screen televisions that display gymnasium-style scoreboards measuring, among other things, the progress of Indiana’s students compared to goals he set when he took office.

On a recent summer day, with 576 days, 14 hours, 40 minutes, and 37 seconds remaining in Bennett’s term, it looked as though the former coach still had his team in the game. By 2012, he wants a statewide 90 percent on-time graduation rate (it’s now at 84.5 percent, up from 81.6 percent in the 2008–’09 school year); 25 percent of high-school students to pass at least one Advanced Placement exam (currently 12.2 percent, up from 10.3 in 2008–’09); and 90 percent of students to pass the English and math portions of the standardized ISTEP exam (now 70.2 percent, up from 68.2 percent last year).

If Bennett does decide to run for reelection, he says he wants voters to judge him by these results. “For all the people that are against Tony Bennett,” says Huston, the party treasurer who later served as Bennett’s chief of staff, “the guy has, in the last two-and-a-half years, one hell of a record of success.”

Two driving themes in Bennett’s regime are competition and accountability, catchwords in the national reform agenda gaining popularity as Bennett took office. For change agents such as Bennett, giving parents a choice (another reform buzzword) in where their children attend school—usually by issuing publicly funded vouchers for private- or charter-school tuition—creates competition for students among lower-performing public schools. And in theory, “accountability,” or making funding contingent on performance, gives floundering schools and districts a strong incentive to improve.

Bennett’s emphasis on competition, choice, and accountability have put him in league not only with the proponents of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation passed during George W. Bush’s administration, but also with current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has served in top education posts under two Democrats, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and President Barack Obama. Bennett, a Republican, routinely praises Duncan, whose much-publicized endorsement of charter schools—publicly funded but independently operated—has drawn opposition from Democratic-leaning teachers’ unions. “I admire Secretary Duncan very much,” says Bennett. “I think he and the president have taken on their own constituency with the issue of teacher quality and with the charter-school stuff.” (This spring, during a visit to a charter school in Indianapolis, Duncan offered similarly high praise for Bennett’s efforts here in Indiana.)

But before getting to work cleaning up the school system, Bennett decided to clean house. From January to March 2009, in one of his earliest cost-cutting moves as state superintendent, Bennett dropped about 100 employees—nearly a third—from the Department of Education (although some left for other reasons, Bennett says).

“My first red flag went up immediately when there was a huge turnover in staff,” says Teresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA). “Some folks who really knew their stuff were suddenly gone.” Meredith said the union kept an “open dialogue” with Bennett at the outset, but that it quickly deteriorated. “It became very apparent that we just had some serious philosophical differences,” she says.

The gap between the education department and the union grew as Bennett entered his second year in office. In January 2010, Bennett’s office submitted an application to Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion federal program that funds education reforms in states across the nation. Indiana stood to win up to hundreds of millions of dollars for such measures as increasing the number of charter schools and pushing for tougher accountability.

When Indiana failed to win the grant, the department prepared to submit another bid for the money, but this time Bennett wanted to gain union support—a common trait of plans that won money in the first round. Union officials complained they didn’t have enough time to review the new proposal. Bennett amped up the pressure. “While the labor unions have bemoaned the difficult financial status of Indiana’s schools, it doesn’t appear they are willing to support any change that could bring an additional $250 million to our state,” he said in a statement.

A spat ensued, with ISTA president Nate Schnellenberger retorting that the union would not participate in a department-planned media event “arranged for the purpose of strong-arming ISTA.” (Schnellenberger declined to be interviewed for this story because, according to a spokesman, “he wouldn’t have very positive things to say.”) Without union support, Bennett’s department gave up on pursuing the grant.

For all his power struggles with organized labor, it is worth noting that Bennett, the son of a union electrician, was once a union man himself; he even credits a union he once belonged to with coming to his defense over a payment dispute during his brief teaching turn in Ohio. Being in management, though, has changed his outlook. “I’m not this anti-union beast,” he says. “I’m elected by the citizens of this state to do this job. Look, I mean, if I hated the union, I wouldn’t have hired Dan Clark”—that is, ISTA’s former top Statehouse lobbyist, whose move to the Department of Education many outside observers considered a titanic coup for Bennett.

Whatever the case, last fall, Bennett and his allies saw an opportunity to move forward with their slate of reforms, with or without the union’s support. Republicans, who already controlled the Senate and governor’s office, took back the House in statewide elections. Bennett’s office started a full-court lobbying press for a sweeping package of changes, including merit-based pay and curtailed collective-bargaining rights for teachers, an A-through-F grading system for public schools, and the largest private-school voucher program in the nation. In an attempt to gain the support of teachers, Bennett effectively went over the union’s head, meeting, by his own estimate, some 8,000 teachers, while his staff met with another 20,000.

But despite Bennett’s efforts to reach out, many teachers saw the reform package as anti-educator. (Disclosure: The writer’s wife is an elementary special-education teacher in Indiana.) At one point, a group of art instructors circulated a parody movie poster titled Attack on the Teachers, starring “Emperor Daniels” and “Darth Bennett.” (“An incredible likeness,” Bennett admits.) But in the end, the Republican-controlled legislature gave Bennett his reforms. At press time, an ISTA lawsuit alleging that the voucher program violates the state constitution was pending in a Marion County court.

Sitting in the kitchen of their Noblesville home, Tina Bennett acknowledges that her husband’s battles have forced the family to “dodge some shrapnel along the way.” (The metaphor is appropriate, considering that one of Bennett’s favorite historical personalities is General George Patton; as a coach, Bennett would watch the 1970 biopic Patton before the start of each season.)

In February, around the time the “Darth Bennett” poster surfaced, Tina Bennett also became the subject of controversy. When the Bennetts relocated to Noblesville, Tina, formerly a principal at Clarksville High School, took a job as a consultant with the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. It wasn’t long before critics were pointing out that Bennett’s charter-friendly reforms, if enacted, might give a boost to Mrs. Bennett’s earning potential. “Her work would presumably increase with the opening of new Indiana charter schools,” the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorialized. Amid growing criticism, Tina Bennett resigned.

“I’m constantly saying to him, ‘Do you really have to be that direct?’” says Tina Bennett. “Or, ‘Was that necessary?’ I’m not sure he knows any other way to do it.”

“This was on a different level than anything we’ve experienced as a family, and perhaps we weren’t prepared for it,” Tina says. The couple once came home to find their property vandalized. “Performance based accreditation” was spray-painted on the back of their house, and a crude likeness of a certain male appendage was scrawled on their driveway, with an arrow pointing to Tony Bennett’s car.

In the midst of the adversity, Bennett was presented with an opportunity for an easy out. As Daniels pondered a presidential bid this spring, and Bennett mulled over his own political future, an executive search firm offered him the chance to take the same position in Florida, for nearly triple the $82,734 salary he earns now. In the end, the Bennetts balked. “To be quite honest with you,” Tina says, “it was tempting.” Although it was a “tough” decision, Bennett says he didn’t want to leave a job “halfway through.”

If Bennett was battle-weary, he didn’t let it stop him from jumping back into the breach. One of his signature efforts has been to pursue the enforcement of Indiana’s Public Law 221, a 1999 measure that gives the state broad authority to intervene in chronically failing schools (based on ISTEP scores and student pass rates). After a school has failed to improve for six years, the state is required to pursue one of a menu of remedies ranging from minor organizational changes to merging the school with another to bringing in a private company to operate it. Starting in June, Bennett traveled to 18 chronically failing schools across the state for public hearings on the possibility of intervention by the Department of Education.

Some meetings have been positive, he says, “but in other instances, it’s been a lot of excuse-making.” Not surprisingly, the prospect of relinquishing stewardship of their schools has angered some parents, teachers, administrators, and community members—and has invited a great deal of media attention. A two-hour hearing took place at IPS school No. 420, Thomas Carr Howe Community High, on the east side of Indianapolis—where the combined percentage of students that passed the English portions of the ISTEP and End-of-Course Assessment exams in 2009–’10 was only 30.6 percent, and just 38.5 percent for math. About 30 people offered their input at the meeting, many to make spirited arguments against a takeover. “Frankly, it’s sad that we have a state law that takes us six years before we ever get serious about holding ourselves accountable [for] what happens to our children,” Bennett told the crowd. “That is wrong, and I would like to change that.”

As he exited the heated hearing, Eugene White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, was diplomatic about Bennett’s performance. “We’ve never had this type of educational reform movement in Indiana,” he said. “He’s not satisfied with the status quo, and he’s aggressively pursuing ways to change it. I think he’s been very conscientious in trying to do that.” About a month later, on July 22, Bennett’s department announced that of the seven Indiana schools facing state intervention, six were located in White’s district.

“You say his name, and people just sort of groan,” the union’s Meredith says of Bennett. Much of the ire directed at Bennett can be chalked up to policies such as merit-based pay and vouchers, which are almost universally opposed by teachers’ unions. But his my-way-or-the-highway approach probably has something to do with it, too. “I’m constantly saying to him, ‘Do you really have to be that direct?’ Or, ‘Was that necessary?’” says Tina. “I’m not sure he knows any other way to do it.” Some of Bennett’s perceived brashness could be attributed, in part, to the sheer volume of his voice. “He’s got one tone,” says Alex Damron, one of Bennett’s press aides. “It’s called ‘coach.’”

Winning hearts and minds has, at times, been a losing cause. Bennett recently held a press conference to announce a 1 percent to 2 percent statewide increase in ISTEP scores—the third straight year scores have improved under his watch. It should have been an upbeat affair. In a private meeting before the press conference, Bennett spoke to a handful of teachers and administrators and praised their efforts. He sounded an almost apologetic note. The biggest mistake his administration had made, he told them, was that it hadn’t done a good job of differentiating the good teachers from the bad. Citing the Milken and Teacher of the Year awards, he said the state needed to find more ways to recognize its teachers. “I think there are a hell of a lot more great teachers in this state than two,” he said.

But despite the congenial tone of the private meeting, and the relatively positive news of the press conference, the event quickly came off the rails. Reporters lobbed questions about the impact of the state’s controversial new A-through-F school-grading model. Others asked about potential teacher-aided cheating on the ISTEP. Still others wanted details on the contentious takeover issue. Bennett struggled to keep the gathering on-message. “I don’t want to be flippant about this,” he said, “but one of the things I want to focus on today is the success of these schools.”

After the conference, Bennett sought out Damron, his press aide, who was perched on a desk in the education department’s offices. Bennett was flummoxed. “The media is not used to hearing good news from us,” he said. “I just wonder if that didn’t create the problem, because of the reputation of this office and the way it has delivered messages in the past. They assume that they’re going to walk in and get, ‘Let’s talk about negatives.’”

“I think certainly in the early part of your term you had to deliver a message that was harsh at times,” Damron replied. “But I think the other tough part is that, after two years of good news, it becomes boring for some folks to continue to report it.”

“Yeah,” said Bennett. Normally indefatigable, he seemed tired. The scoreboard silently ticked off a few more seconds.

It’s getting close to the start of the new school year, and Bennett is touring Summer Advantage, a five-week program aimed at curbing summer learning loss, at IPS school No. 42, Elder W. Diggs Elementary, on the west side. He walks into a room of fourth-graders in the program’s money-management class. “We have a special visitor,” says the teacher, Robert King. “This is Dr. Bennett.”

“Hello,” the children answer, in unison.

Today, the students are learning how higher education will impact their salaries when they grow up. On a whiteboard at the front of the class, King has copied a table of income ranges based on education levels. As he directs the students’ attention to the board, Bennett seems to come alive.

“Mr. King,” says Bennett, “may I give the class a quick math lesson?” He jumps to the front of the room, toward the whiteboard. “Let’s go right through here. If you don’t have a high-school diploma, about how much money do you make in a year?”

“$24,964?” a kid answers.

“Now,” says Bennett, “let’s put some math skills together. Tell me the relationship between this amount by the hour, and this amount by the year.”

“Huh?” says one of the children.

“This is a tough question,” Bennett says. “This will help you when you get older.”

The kids stumble around the point, but Bennett presses on. “There’s this little rule that how much you make an hour, if you double it, that’s how much you make in the year in thousands,” Bennett says. “So if you make $50 an hour, how much do you make in a year?”

“$10,000?” ventures one student.

“You’re close! One more zero,” Bennett says.

“$100,000!” several students shout. The children are fully engaged now, reacting to Bennett’s enthusiasm.

Outside the school, Bennett climbs back into his Chevy Tahoe. As he races toward the next meeting, he admits that he misses teaching.

But it seems unlikely that Bennett will wind up back in the classroom anytime soon. This spring, he was elected chairman of Chiefs for Change, an education-reform organization founded by Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. Bush pioneered many of the same reforms that Bennett has been pressing for, and says that in his short time in public office, Bennett has become a growing voice in the nationwide conversation about education reform. “I love Tony Bennett,” says Bush, who first met Bennett two years ago on a trip to Indiana. “He’s passionate, forceful to a certain extent, courageous. He believes what he believes, and he’s more than happy to persuade people about those beliefs. He’ll do it in the friendliest terrain. He’ll do it in the most hostile of forums. And he knows the details well.”

Bennett’s advisers are trying to clear the runway in case he decides to run for reelection next year. The guest list for an August political fundraiser at the home of Carmel businessman Fred Klipsch was a veritable Who’s Who of Republican donors and bigwigs: Al Hubbard, the former head of George W. Bush’s economic council; Bob Grand, managing partner of law firm Barnes & Thornburg; and, of course, Governor Daniels. Bennett says he has had conversations with Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence about a potential partnership.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, though, Bennett says he’s not thinking about politics. “I have never ever thought about the next election,” he says. “Matter of fact, the people in this job that anger me the most are people who make decisions based on how it will impact their political future. My job is about kids.

Bennett photo by Tony Valainis; Bennett and Bush photo courtesy Indiana Department of Education.

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.