FORT WAYNE — An hour-long debate Friday night between state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz was strictly formatted, but it provided more than enough time to see the nearly polar-opposite campaign platforms of the two candidates.
The format provided little wiggle room for candidates, who stayed within their time limits and gave succinct answers.
In the first of three rounds, both had the opportunity to answer questions and follow-up with their opponents after a response.
The debate was at the studios of WBOI-FM.
The questions focused on hot-button issues such as vouchers, the expansion of charter schools across the state, standardized tests and school accountability.
Ritz, an elementary media specialist, remained on the offensive, attacking Bennett for his school and district accountability system, voucher program and use of student testing data for teacher evaluations.
Bennett defended his policies and agenda, saying Indiana will become a model of education for the country and has seen positive results in standardized test scores and graduation rates. The accountability system Ritz attacked has pushed districts to reform chronically underperforming schools, Bennett said.
Ritz also criticized Bennett’s policies as funneling taxpayer dollars to private companies, including private schools through the voucher program and for-profit schools that Bennett chose to take over underperforming schools as part of his accountability system.
“I don’t believe public tax dollars should go to private companies,” she said.
Ritz advocated returning local control to districts, ending the current administration’s focus on standardized testing and spending more on early-childhood education. She said she would provide more support for low-performing schools instead of threatening them with sanctions.
Bennett supports choice through offering vouchers, public dollars based on income given to students who leave public schools for private ones, and by removing barriers for charters. He said this gives options to families who don’t want to send students to public schools.
Bennett said even if private companies’ bottom line is to make money, his is to ensure that students learn.
“I will get my bottom line before they get theirs,” he said.
Ritz said families have choices within public schools or can send students to other public school districts; charters and vouchers take tax dollars away from public schools, forcing them to cut programs, she said. She also believes that under the state’s constitution, vouchers are illegal.
Bennett disagrees. “I believe (the law) is one of the most socially just laws Indiana has passed,” he said.
Round 2 questions were candidate-specific, like questions directed at Bennett about his “abrasive” leadership style. Bennett said he is a “passionate” and “driven” but also a “caring” leader who works hard to accomplish goals.
The sources of Bennett’s campaign donations were also questioned. Bennett received donations from out of state, including from the Walton family of Wal-Mart and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bennett said these people believe in Indiana’s education path.
Ritz was asked about specific budget cuts she would make if needed, to which she responded with cuts to standardized testing. Bennett said cutting assessments would cost the state federal funding.
Ritz was also asked about her opposition to a reading test given in the third grade that prevents a student from moving on to fourth grade without a passing score. Ritz said she is in favor of accurate assessments of students’ reading abilities before third grade.
Bennett said after the debate that he believes that anyone who looks into Indiana education would see that students are on the right track.
Ritz had hoped the questions would dig deeper into Bennett’s accountability system, which underwent major changes this year. The system gives A-F grades to schools based on student performance, growth and participation in standardized tests. Ritz said the system is confusing, and voters and educators doubt its accuracy.
Bennett said his administration has delayed the release of the grades to ensure they’re accurate and that schools and districts have adequate time to review and appeal the data.
“One of the biggest things is that we want to get this right,” he said.