Who is Michael Bennet?

January 7, 2009

Pop quiz. Take a look at this picture and see if you recognize the gentleman who is portrayed:

If you don't recognize him, you're one of what I'm guessing is well in excess of 99% of Americans who cannot put a name to his face. If you guessed that his name is Michael Bennet, you get two points for using context from the title to arrive at the correct answer. And if you actually knew without needing the title that the person in the picture is Michael Bennet, the new junior Senator from Colorado, you get a million points for being either an astute news watcher or a dedicated follower of Denver politics.

But why, in an education blog, does Mr. Bennet's nomination matter so much? After all, I haven't written (nor will I write) about the controversial Roland Burris appointment in Illinois or the fiery debate over Caroline Kennedy in New York. In short, Mr. Bennet's nomination matters so much because of his track record of success in three years as Denver's public school superintendent, and the possibility that he will work together with other Senators and Representatives to fashion a strong education policy under the Obama administration.

FIrst, a little about Mr. Bennet, who at 44 has never so much as run for--much less held--an elected office. He made waves as a corporate lawyer specializing in restructuring failing businesses (if you've been to one of these lately, then you've seen some of Mr. Bennet's handiwork, albeit indirect, as a debt-restructuring specialist), and also served for two years as chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (who most Coloradoans expected to be Governor Bill Ritter's choice to replace outgoing Senator Ken Salazar, and not Bennet). Then Mr. Bennet was tabbed to serve as the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

To reiterate, Mr. Bennet's professional resume is most notable because for what it lacks than what it posessess: the last time Mr. Bennet ran for any office or received any kind of a vote may well have been in a high school student council election. But if you look closely enough, there's a lot in his resume as a public servant overseeing Denver's schools that should be encouraging to any onlooker concerned with federal education policy.

For instance, in the past three years, Denver reading and math scores are up by 6%. Early education access has been increased with more full-day kindergarten and pre-school openings, and the school district's budget has been balances in each of the past two years--a remarkable feat given the prior five years worth of $83 million in budget cuts. Perhaps most vitally, Mr. Bennet worked with Denver's teacher unions to create one of the most innovative teacher compensation programs in the country.

The program--called ProComp--reflects well on Mr. Bennet as much for its cutting edge policy provisions as it does for the tricky political process that he successfully navigated to see the plan through to success. Teachers unions are traditionally strongly opposed to any payment structure that seeks to differentiate pay based on student learning gains or anything else that is not seniority or advanced degrees, but Denver's teachers agreed to buck that trend. In ProComp, Denver's teachers have a 9-year agreement with the district to tie teacher salaries to four distinct components: student learning gains, professional evaluations, market incentives (such as bonuses for harder-to-staff schools and subjects), and the old stand-by knowledge and skills. Crucially, the program has no ceiling for how much a teacher may earn--effectively allowing a teacher to be paid truly according to their worth in meeting the educational mission of their school.

Without question, the appointment of Mr. Bennet is risky, as most commentators have pointed out. Mr. Bennet will have to run for re-election in two years as a result of his special appointment, and with no campaign or elected office experience, no one can say for sure whether he will be up to the challenge. But if he is, America's children have another strong advocate in the halls of the Capitol to fight for their access to quality public schools.

Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.