As the GOP-controlled Indiana General Assembly continues its assault on public education, Hoosiers should consider who benefits from the legislation under consideration. They'll see that Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction, would clearly be a winner.
The first-term Republican is backing an ambitious legislative agenda that includes private-school vouchers, expansion of charter schools, privatization of struggling schools and relaxed teacher-licensing requirements. Bennett told The Journal Gazette editorial board last week that he didn't really have a priority list for the bills. He said he instead wanted to focus on "comprehensive education reform."
"We've tried to do one thing at a time too much," he said. "My priority is to get it all accomplished."
Indeed, with Republican majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate, the state superintendent doesn't need to name a priority: He's finding enthusiastic support from GOP lawmakers for measures that have been dead on arrival in previous sessions. Approval of the legislation will surely boost the political profile of an official who some observers believe is positioning himself for a run for governor.
But Bennett, an unabashed charter-school supporter, also stands to benefit directly if the education bills are approved. His wife, Tina Bennett, is school improvement/new schools development consultant for the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. Her work would presumably increase with the opening of new Indiana charter schools.
Tina Bennett is also assistant director of the Teach for America program at Marian University in Indianapolis. Marian's president is Daniel J. Elsener, who also happens to serve on the Indiana State Board of Education.
The small Catholic university was awarded a $500,000 principal training grant from the Indiana Department of Education last year. A spokeswoman for Tony Bennett told the Indianapolis Star at the time that the superintendent's wife wasn't involved in the program, but the contract proposal cites Marian's partnership with Teach for America as an example of prior leadership in the area of school turnaround programs.
Some in the education community say that Marian University had no experience in training school principals, while Indiana University, one of the unsuccessful bidders, has a well-established program in educational leadership. Critics don't want to be quoted on the record – they fear retribution from a powerful administration with the authority to control budgets and regulatory oversight.
Tony Bennett listed both Marian University and the charter school organization as his wife's employers on his handwritten financial disclosure form for 2010. Indiana law requires only that state officials disclose the names of a spouse's employers and the nature of their business.
It's left to voters to decide whether the official's responsibilities pose a conflict with his or her spouse's work. But in weighing education bills that will clearly benefit the state's charter school community and its turnaround school programs, Indiana lawmakers should take a closer look at who benefits from their support.