Did Common Core Critics Topple Tony Bennett?

Published November 10, 2012

Although national pundits have linked Tea Partiers to Indiana School Superintendent Tony Bennett’s loss against union official Glenda Ritz Nov. 6, polls and ground-level observation indicate the reformer lost largely by alienating moms and teachers.

“Ritz was able to pick up some Tea Party support over their concerns about Common Core [education standards],” Brian Howey told School Reform News. He runs Howey Politics Indiana, a tracking and analysis publication. “That might have had some impact, but I don’t believe it was the key element in Bennett’s defeat.”

Howey fingered Ritz’s “social media campaign that tapped into the teachers who were very upset with the Bennett reforms.”

That’s now how it looked to out-of-state reformers, among whom Bennett was well known for driving Indiana’s statewide school vouchers, teacher accountability tied to student test scores, and education standards 46 states adopted in response to Obama administration grant and accountability requirements.

From Massachusetts, the Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios wrote, “the numbers point to anger among his base over his vocal support for and adoption of the national standards and tests.” In Washington, DC, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess tagged Bennett’s loss to the union and “frustration among Tea Party conservatives that Bennett was championing an initiative that they’ve come to see as an Obama administration initiative.”

In Virginia, Bellwether Education Partners’ Andrew Rotherham wrote Bennett was “caught in a pincer between conservatives upset about his friendliness to the Common Core standards and an education establishment upset about … his support for ambitious and disruptive reform.”

Mourdock Effect
The counties where Bennett ran behind mirrored the gap for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock: huge losses in Democrat-leaning areas and weak support in Republican-leaning ones. Theirs were the only high-profile Republican losses in Indiana, as voters simultaneously elected a new Republican governor and Republican House and Senate majorities while supporting Mitt Romnney for president.

Both candidates lost big in the state’s three largest school districts: Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Gary. All three districts perform poorly and have been subject to state school takeovers and attrition from voucher students under Bennett’s oversight.

To win an Indiana statewide election, a Republican must win Fort Wayne, not suffer terribly in Indianapolis and Chicago-hugging Lake County (which encompasses Gary), and win big in Republican rural areas and “donut” counties surrounding Indianapolis, said Justin Busch, a regional representative for outgoing Sen. Dick Lugar (R). Bennett and Mourdock failed at all three.

Whereas Republicans such as Governor-elect Mike Pence ran positive, center-right campaigns, Bennett and Mourdock acted and were labeled “hyperconservative.” Voters nervous about Mourdock showed up to vote against him, and they also likely voted against Bennett, local strategists said.

Distaste Among Women Voters
Bennett lost particularly with women voters, more of whom were undecided late in the race, said pollster Christine Matthews. She called the “mom/teacher grassroots network” the reason Bennett lost.

Many teachers thought Bennett “arrogant and heavy-handed,” said Indianapolis mother Heather Crossin, whose children attend public and parochial schools. Crossin has traveled the state to argue against the Common Core.

Teachers she has spoken with fear Indiana’s Department of Education “is trying to micromanage their classrooms. The Common Core is being pushed down their throats. My sense is that Common Core did play a part and may have pushed things over the edge.  I personally know many conservatives who did not vote for him.”

Democrat-Style Campaigning
The Ritz campaign implemented social media and outreach tactics that benefitted President Obama nationwide. Through Facebook and Twitter, it “looped in” Indiana’s approximately 50,000 teachers, Howey said.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, a union, targeted Bennett instead of other candidates who championed the state’s sweeping 2011 education reforms, such as state Sen. David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. It paid off.

“Each teacher had, say, three to five people—maybe more—in their family and social circles who were motivated to vote against Bennett,” Howey wrote. “Teachers also have a greater rapport with mothers of their students. In our October Howey/DePauw poll, Bennett was having problems with Republicans and female voters. There are the major reasons he lost.”