Monday, June 20, 2016

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado (and former Denver school superintendent)

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado (and former Denver school superintendent) generally eschews the national media so he's not well known, but he is an amazing guy – my favorite senator, along with Cory Booker – and would make my short list of possible future Presidents. This weekend's Washington Post magazine has an in-depth profile of him:

In an era of ideological polarization and hyper-partisanship, he is a pragmatic centrist whose instincts run to bipartisan compromise.

In the shouting match that American politics has become, he'd rather listen than talk, steering clear of the national media.

In a capital seething in self-importance, his is the rare ego that does not precede him into the room.

And at a time when politicians get ahead by being nasty, superficial and glib, Bennet gets by, as one Republican staffer put it, by being "the most affable and knowledgeable guy in the room."

Bennet is the anti-Trump, the anti-Cruz — but also the anti-Hillary, straightforward and authentic. In many ways, he is a throwback to a bygone era, an optimist with impeccable establishment credentials who finds himself miscast for today's politics of anti-establishment anger and resentment. Whether he is able to survive the vitriol of this year's election and find a constructive role to play in Washington offers a test of whether there is still a place in American politics for talented, experienced leaders more interested in governing than winning.

"What people want is principled bipartisanship, and what they are getting is unprincipled partisanship," Bennet told me. "There would be no point in running again if I didn't believe that could change."

…It is not uncommon for Bennet to find himself at odds with party leaders. At the twice-weekly caucus lunches, Bennet often chafes in silence as Democratic leaders plot their latest partisan maneuver or exhort senators to stay "on message." Although disinclined by temperament to be the constant critic or lead ill-fated rebellions, he has challenged the leadership on a few occasions. That he prevailed, a number of senators told me, is a measure of the respect he has from his colleagues. 

"I have heard him give speeches in caucus, off the cuff, and turn the issue 180 degrees," said Sen. John Tester of Montana, a friend and frequent foosball rival.

"He wants us to be less political and more focused on the issues," said Schumer, who will takeover as Senate Democratic leader next year and shows no sign of becoming less political.

Schumer, by the way, long ago called back Ritter to admit he'd been wrong about Bennet. He now calls him "an ideal senator."

Here's the part of the article about his work when he was Denver school superintendent – we could all learn a lot of this:

So when Denver's school superintendent came to tell the mayor that he was going to leave for another job in 2004, Hickenlooper asked him what he thought of Bennet as his replacement. "Who's Michael Bennet?" asked the superintendent.

To Bennet's friends and family, the idea of his becoming a big-city school superintendent seemed nutty. Not only did he have no training or experience in education, he had never attended a public school. Neither had any of his three daughters. Even among experienced superintendents, failure rates were high and tenures short. His longtime mentor, Gov. Celeste, remembers telling Bennet, "If you have any hope of a political career, it's the worst possible thing you could do." 

Bennet, however, was intrigued by the challenge. He called up other superintendents, read everything he could get his hands on about school reform, and by the time of his interview with the school board had come to three conclusions: "One, I couldn't believe how bad urban school systems were doing. Two, I had no idea whether my lack of experience would be a negative or positive. And three, I desperately wanted the job." He was chosen over a Latina who had been a community college president and the black superintendent of another school district.

The board's unconventional choice was soon tested when the new superintendent announced a plan to close Manual High School, once the pride of Denver's African American community. Manual's enrollment had fallen nearly by half, classroom discipline was weak, gangs ruled the corridors. Even after repeated reform efforts — contracts with parents, performance pay for teachers, "small school" restructuring — 97 percent of Manual's students were failing the citywide math exam, 90 percent the writing test. Only 20 percent who entered ninth grade actually graduated. Bennet's proposal was to send students to other schools and start over at Manual with a new principal, new teachers, new students and a new approach to education.

"It was his stake in the ground," said Allegra "Happy" Haynes, a former city councilor who moved with Bennet from city hall to the schools. "Manual really stood out in terms of how bad it was."

Not everyone saw it that way. Manual's teachers felt they were being blamed unfairly for their unruly and unprepared students. Black and Hispanic students felt abandoned. African American leaders saw it as an insult to their community. Students marched on school headquarters, and black ministers denounced Bennet.

Haynes remembers attending a community meeting with Bennet in a packed auditorium with people crying and jeering at him whenever he spoke. "He stood there all night and never once got defensive," she said. "It was an extraordinarily painful experience for him, but the way he saw it, it was the things that we weren't doing for these kids that was the real civil rights issue."

Bennet soon realized that closing the school was only the first step; he also had to make sure that its students would be offered something better somewhere else. He created a spreadsheet to track where all 558 students were going, set up a network of academic counselors to advise them and recruited hundreds of community leaders to serve as life mentors or provide them with part-time jobs. By July, however, it looked as though hundreds of Manual students might simply drop out of school. So for six weeks the superintendent of schools spent nights and weekends going door to door to enroll students in other programs. When schools reopened in September, all but about 100 Manual students were enrolled somewhere else — a higher return rate than in previous years. 

At Denver's other 160 schools, Bennet initiated annual "town meetings" with teachers at every school — four or five per week — to listen to their complaints and suggestions. Every principal was assigned to one of 15 groups that met with the superintendent once a month. 

"He's the only superintendent I know of who spent half of every day with teachers and principals," said Jaime Aquino, whom Bennet recruited from New York City to be chief academic officer. Central office employees were evaluated on how responsive they were to the schools, rather than the other way around. 

In dealing with a sometimes hostile teachers union, Bennet's strategy was to create allies among teachers open to reform while isolating hard-liners. He pushed bigger pay raises for starting teachers and those willing to teach at low-performing schools. Only after pouring money into enhanced teacher training did he push for more merit pay. Charter schools were incorporated into the public system. And with his support, the Colorado legislature gave teachers at any school the power to opt out of union contracts to gain the flexibility for educational innovation. Today, teachers at nearly 20 percent of Denver schools have voted to opt out.

"He had a lot of credibility with teachers that the union leaders couldn't ignore," said Tom Boasberg, a childhood friend from Cleveland Park whom Bennet lured from a telecom company to be the school system's chief operating officer. Boasberg would eventually succeed Bennet as superintendent.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools, credited Bennet with beginning the transformation of one of the country's most troubled urban systems into one that is now one of the highest performing. According to an evaluation done by his organization, the number of students found to be proficient in reading and math increased by 6 percentage points during Bennet's four-year tenure, and the upward trend has continued ever since. 

Even today, when Bennet visits the city's schools, teachers and principals come up to give him a hug and reminisce. He still remembers their names and what projects they had worked on together.

"It was the best job I ever had," he said, almost wistfully, as we sat in his Senate office one evening.

…And in the long-running battle over reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law, colleagues give the former school superintendent credit for finally convincing Democrats that the federal role in education had become overbearing and inflexible while convincing Republicans of the imperative to hold states accountable for poor-performing schools.

"He bridged the gap with the Republicans," said Sen. Patty Murray, ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, who called Bennet "the pragmatic voice of reason."

For Bennet, the education bill was something of a bittersweet victory. The eight years it took to pass it, he said in yet another speech to an empty chamber in December, revealed a disturbing lack of urgency on the part of too many of his colleagues who were "content to treat America's children as if they are someone else's rather than their own." The same outcome, he told me later, could have been had years earlier if party leaders had simply given their members the green light to compromise.

The can-do senator in a can't-do Congress

June 16
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a critic of unregulated money flowing into politics today. (Nigel Parry/For The Washington Post)

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