Tony Bennett on charter schools

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Indianapolis - The state's superintendent of public instruction spoke to Eyewitness News political reporter Kevin Rader about charter schools, accountability and other issues on the table at the Indiana Statehouse this week. This story is based on a transcript of that interview. (See Kevin Rader's charter school story here.)

Charter school performance

One criticism leveled by some educators is that there's no evidence that charter schools fare any better than traditional schools when it comes to student performance. Eyewitness News asked Dr. Tony Bennett to respond to that.

"I believe that the state has not a good job, historically, of holding any schools in this state accountable to be high quality. We have public law 221 which was enacted in 1999. We're just now to the point where the state's gonna intervene with underperforming schools? We have charters that have not performed, which is why we advocated so strongly in committee that the charter school legislation should be a piece of legislation where charter schools are held to the highest level of accountability, because this is not just about an attraction to charters. This is about providing all students access to quality options. Of those options aren't of quality, the state should not support those options continuing to exist," he said.

Bennett says the ideal he's striving towards is the chance to "insert competition into our educational system."

School choice and closing schools

On school choice, Bennett says, "These are issues that are part of an overall comprehensive agenda that says parents deserve choice. We should hold all choices to high levels of accountability, and we should provide at all options the opportunity to operate in a flexible climate so they can meet the needs of children."

Eyewitness News asked Bennett what he meant when he said that underperforming schools - charters and traditional - should be closed. He said there are a "number of options" including putting the management of the school in the hands of "another operator," closing the school or putting a "turnaround manager" in the school.

"We have some terribly underperforming schools in the state. We're gonna take action," he said. "We intend to take action if charter schools don't perform."

Bennett also said that "education reform happens at the school level. Charter schools are those centers of innovation that provide parents and students choices for challenging and rigorous educational opportunities."


Eyewitness News asked the superintendent about a "time frame" that would allow charter schools room to grow without accountability.

"We are going to put letter grades on charter schools from start to finish. We should give parents that transparent piece of information that says this is how a school performs. The question is at what point does the state intervene?" he said.

Bennett would like the state to begin having "strong conversations" with underperforming charter schools after a three-year period, and allow the state to act after the fifth year, which is stricter than what the law currently calls for.

Bennett says those parents taking advantage of charter school options are "predominantly disadvantaged and minority parents." He says charter schools are an opportunity for those families to become "re-enfranchised."

He doesn't believe in a "single-best way" to provide students the most opportunities to learn. Instead, Bennett says he sees traditional schools operating in a flexible manner, charter schools and private schools as co-existing options.

"Providing hope"

Regarding the fearful atmosphere surrounding the education reform debate, Bennett said, "This isn't about fear. It's about providing hope. This is about providing hope for children who in many instances haven't had hope before."

He says education reform should be built around the needs of children, not "the traditional norms that we've held in the past."


Some teachers feel that much of the debate is a union-busting tactic, something Bennett disputes.

"If it was a union-busting tactic we'd be trying to repeal collective bargaining totally. We would be doing many different things than we're currently doing. This is in my opinion is an opportunity for the unions to step forward and say to us, here's how we believe education in the state should be reformed."

Bennett said he's traveled around the state and spoken before 7,000 teachers. He wants teachers to engage in the debate.

Wife's employment

Some WTHR viewers have pointed out connections between Dr. Bennett's wife and the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. When asked if she were employed by the organization, Bennett responded, "No, she's not. My wife served as a consultant for the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. She separated herself from her contract as a consultant a week ago last Thursday."

Bennett went on to say, "I wonder how many of our organizations who feel that that's a valid attack would also attack the members of our General Assembly who by the way vote on legislation and I don't - who are employed by our state's higher ed institutions, who receive money from the General Assembly, or who are public school teachers, whose corporations receive money, have they accused them of engaging in some type of conflict of interest?"