Once upon a time, the Indiana Department of Education was a great place to go to take a good long nap.
For 16 years, Republican Suellen Reed served as the state’s superintendent of public instruction. She got along with people. She worked with Democratic governors. She worked with Republican governors. She operated by the quaint, almost family-values-like notion that children learned best in atmospheres devoid of turmoil.
When she stepped down, she was succeeded by another Republican, Tony Bennett. Bennett was so bombastic and divisive he could prompt hydrogen and oxygen to refuse to form water.
Having an aggressive Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, in office and strong Republican majorities in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly encouraged Bennett to give free rein to his most authoritarian and expansive impulses. In an interview with me, Bennett once spread his arms wide and declared that his election made him responsible “for all the state’s children.”
Just what role parents were supposed to play in their children’s development wasn’t clear in the epic love story that was Bennett and political power.
Perhaps sensing that, many of those parents gave Bennett and his fellow Republicans a sharp rebuke. Democrat Glenda Ritz won a stunning upset victory over Bennett in the 2012 election.
Republicans since have reacted with all the fury of a psychotic jilted lover. They have gone through all the stages of unbalanced behavior – rage, denial and now cold-blooded vindictiveness.
At present, two GOP-sponsored measures that would limit voters’ ability to express themselves in regard to education are working their way through the legislature. One would remove Ritz as chair of the Indiana Board of Education. Another would make her position appointed rather than elected.
Arrogance drives power plays such as these, but so does insecurity.
What this twin push to slap down both Ritz and the state’s voters reveals is that Republicans and other education reformers lack confidence in the merits of their position. They know they are losing the argument about education and that has made them doubly determined to win the fight.
The urgency with which they have pushed through these measures reveals not only some blatant hypocrisy – we believe in choice and empowering parents except when it comes to voting in elections in a self-governing society – but also elements of panic. Does anyone believe Republicans would be resorting to these ramrod tactics if they thought they had a prayer of winning the superintendent’s office back next year?
Desperate times, the cliché goes, call for desperate measures – but they also can lead to desperate consequences.
By taking the choice of schools chief out of the voters’ hands, the legislature and current Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican, have told the voters that the only place they now can make their voices heard on education – statewide, anyway – is in the governor’s race.
Ritz won more votes in 2012 than Pence, who failed to capture a majority the last time around. Pence hasn’t done much to convince those Ritz voters to cast their ballots for him in 2016. In fact, the governor probably has done an awful lot to energize those voters to look for someone – anyone – they can use to send him and other Republicans a message.
As if this whole drama weren’t enough of a soap opera already, in recent weeks we’ve seen the reappearance of an old star – the actor who shattered the quiet and turned our discussions about education into a toxic mess.
Bennett is back serving as a consultant for one of the “education reform” groups heavily invested – in all senses of the word – in maintaining charter schools and school vouchers, regardless of how effective or ineffective they might be.
“Isn’t there some isolated school system in South Dakota without phones or internet access that needs a superintendent right now? That’s where Tony ought to be,” an Indiana business leader who supports education reform groused to me a few days ago.
The business leader is right. Having Bennett reappear probably is not the best way to calm these roiled waters.
Suellen Reed’s approach – adults really shouldn’t fight in front of children – might do some good, though.
These days, quiet at the DOE would look and sound pretty good.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.