November 27, 2009

Pro-child proponent: Catholic school grad Tony Bennett works to change direction of Indiana education as state superintendent

From his days as a basketball player and a coach at Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett has never forgotten the importance of a scoreboard in showing success. He keeps a scoreboard outside his office at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. It shows how Indiana’s educational statistics compare to national numbers. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

From his days as a basketball player and a coach at Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett has never forgotten the importance of a scoreboard in showing success. He keeps a scoreboard outside his office at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. It shows how Indiana’s educational statistics compare to national numbers. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

His heroes are U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. General George S. Patton Jr.—two leaders who never backed down from a fight they believed was worth it.

When he talks about education in Indiana—including the importance of Catholic schools and his support for vouchers for Catholic school parents—his eyes frequently sear and his jaw sets firm, calling up the image of actor Robert DeNiro in one of his tough guy movie roles.

In less than a year as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett has become a lightning rod figure in his efforts to change the direction and improve the success rate of education in the state.

The 1979 graduate of Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville—and a former teacher and basketball coach there—doesn’t shy from controversy in setting a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate for high school students, in advocating changing the licensing requirements for teachers, in demanding that students be in school for the required 180 days each year, and in supporting charter schools and vouchers for private and Catholic schools.

Bennett even has a scoreboard outside his office that displays how Indiana’s educational statistics compare to national numbers. The scoreboard also has a running clock of the time that remains in his four-year term. And inside his office, there are prominent pictures of Roosevelt and Patton.

“I look at what we’re trying to do today, and I think Indiana education is at a crossroads,” says Bennett, the father of four children in their 20s. “We’re either going to stand still and let our national and international competition pass us by and really jeopardize our future. Or we’re going to make substantial education reforms that are going to shake up the status quo and they’re going to shake up the education establishment, but we will prosper at the end.”

Bennett shared that assessment in an extensive interview with The Criterion. Here is an edited version of that interview:

Q. You are a 1979 graduate of Our Lady of Providence High School. Talk about your experience there.

A. “There’s no question that some of the most influential people of my life came out of Providence High School.

“One that comes to mind is my freshman social studies and my junior U.S. history teacher—a gentleman by the name of Ron Veleta, who passed away a long time ago. Mr. Veleta was a guy who demanded that every day in class you gave your best. He was also my freshman basketball coach, and he demanded it after school as well. One time, he made the comment, ‘The greatest sin we can commit is when we don’t make the most of our skills.’ That’s always stuck with me.

“I would also tell you that Bob Larkin, a former principal, was an influence. Bob is a paraplegic. He’s still alive. He was in a terrible car accident a long, long time ago. He took over Providence in the early ‘70s. He was just a profile in courage. His faith and his belief in what we did at Providence and what Providence could do for students was galvanized in his heart. I look at the impact those people had on my life as a student. They modeled the passion and the values I try to live by.”

Q. What influence does your experience at Providence High School have on your approach as superintendent of public instruction of Indiana?

A. “As you look at our action plan [for education in the state], it’s based on 90-25-90. We want 90 percent of our students to pass the ISTEP [Currently, 73 percent do.]. We want 25 percent to get an Advanced Placement or international baccalaureate credit. [Currently, 10 percent do.] And we want 90 percent of our students to graduate from high school. [Currently, 77.8 percent do.]

“We believe that sits on a foundation of three issues: competition, freedom and accountability. I can’t think of a better example of a school competing than Providence because they offer a competitive alternative to schools in that area. They also operate in a very free environment. And they’re incredibly accountable to the Providence community, to the [New Albany] deanery and the archdiocese. I’ve always appreciated that Providence isn’t afraid to compete. Our schools in this state shouldn’t be afraid to compete.”

Q. Talk about your faith and its role in your life.

A. “I was raised in a very strict Catholic family. I spent 12 years in Catholic education. I went to grade school at St. Anthony’s [of Padua] in Clarksville.

“Going forth, I look at all the blessings I have in the world. God has blessed me with four beautiful children and a wonderful family. I was fortunate that I went to, and was part of, two Catholic school communities that instilled a system of belief in yourself. My kids always say, ‘Hey, Dad, how do you put up with the fact that so many people are against you?’ I say, ‘I was pretty lucky because people at St. Anthony and Providence taught me that if I believe in doing the right thing for the right reasons, I’ll like myself.’ That’s a pretty strong faith statement for me.”

Q. What is your view of the role and the impact that Catholic schools in Indiana have on education in the state?

A. “First of all, in terms of all private education, there’s little question in my mind that the Catholic school system has done the best job of organizing itself. It’s got great organization, and they know how to replicate schools. But they are competitors. They stand up and put themselves on the line every day.

“I came out of the public school superintendent ranks, but I’m a strong believer that people should have choices and that money should follow children. For that very reason, our Catholic schools, our private schools, all options, should be available to kids, to meet the needs of kids.

“This shouldn’t be about protecting the establishment of public schools or even the establishment of Catholic schools. This should be about protecting the opportunities to allow kids to have the opportunities they need to make themselves competitive. I believe Catholic schools are instrumental in that.”

Q. When you say that you believe that money should follow children, Catholic school parents will ask about school vouchers.

A. “Does Tony Bennett advocate school vouchers? Yes, I do. Again, this is not an issue where I say that to try to promote the demise of public schools. That’s not it at all.

“In this state, we are charged with providing education for students to be successful. Now, if that delivery model is best purchased from Catholic schools or private schools, we should do that. So many people try to paint this as an anti-public school discussion. It’s not. It’s a pro-child discussion.”

Q. It’s said that in terms of education, parents are the first educators. What have you tried to share with your children?

A. “First of all, you have to have a passion for life. I hope if I model one thing, it’s the fact that I get up every day and the first thing I do is put my foot on the accelerator to see what we can do harder and faster and with more passion. We only have one linear life, one chance to get through fourth grade and fifth grade and sixth grade. As a superintendent, I only have one shot at these four years.

“So I try to instill those same values in my kids. Every day that they get up, they need to make the most of that day.

“The other thing is, we have an incredibly close family. I talk to my children every day. We end every conversation with the three most powerful words in the world, ‘I love you.’ My kids would tell you their dad is a passionate, emotional guy who is driven to be better than everybody else.”

Q. Drawing from your days as a high school basketball coach at Providence and Scottsburg high schools, you have said, “We’re going to keep score” when it comes to education. Part of that approach is your 90-25-90 goal. Talk about how you want to keep score in education.

A. “Look at the scoreboard outside my office. It’s counting down my term in days, hours, minutes and seconds. We don’t have much time to get it done so there’s a sense of urgency.

“I’ll go back to my days of coaching at Scottsburg. We didn’t try to do a whole lot of things. We tried to do two or three things and do them well. That’s what we’re trying to do here. One, we’re focusing on reading. We have 25,000 third-graders that leave third grade and go to fourth grade, and they don’t read at the third-grade level. We have to stop that.

“Two, [we have to emphasize] math. And a spin-off of that is a focus on science. Then there is [the approach of] multiple pathways. Not all kids need the same thing, which goes back to the idea of competition. We have to invest in a robust system of alternative education, and career and technical educational opportunities for kids. We believe if we do all that in an environment of competition, freedom and accountability, we’ll reach 90-25-90.”

Q. You have established that schools can’t count snow days and teacher development days toward the 180 days that the state requires for student instruction. What is your response to people who have balked about this change?

A. “I could cop out and say, ‘It’s the law.’ But let’s be honest. Let me frame it this way, and I’m going to go back to my coaching days. I’m going to talk about our international competition. European children go to school 195 days times 12 years. That’s 2,340 days of education. If you follow our plan of 180 days times 12 years, that’s 2,160 days. If you do the mental math and subtract 2,160 from 2,340, you get 180 days.

“So the kids from Europe get one more whole year of instruction than our kids get. And we’re expected to be competitive with them. Now, I can tell you that when I coached at Providence, if someone told me that Jeffersonville got to practice 195 days and I only got to practice 180 days, I’d be really mad. My point is, ‘Why wouldn’t we be that angry about the educational opportunities for our children?’ ”

Q. What stands out to you from your first 10 months on the job?

A. “I think we’re moving the needle every day. I get up every morning thinking, ‘How am I going to make sure the other 49 state school superintendents are behind me?’

“I’ve been given every opportunity in the world to succeed. It would be terribly wrong for me not to fight so that everyone has that same opportunity.” †

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