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Photo courtesy of Michigan State Senate
Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent of public instruction, and former University of Michigan basketball standout Jalen Rose, right, testify in support of school choice before a Michigan State Senate committee in September. It was one of more than a dozen out-of-state trips Bennett has taken since last spring.

On the road again

State schools chief popular headliner across the country

Suellen Reed was proud of her record of visiting public schools in all 92 counties during each of her four terms as Indiana's superintendent of public instruction.

Tony Bennett – her successor – also travels extensively, but he doesn't make a point of sharing his itinerary. Perhaps it's because his travels are as likely to have taken him to California, Arizona or Florida as to Fayette, Putnam or Dubois County.

As the Indiana Department of Education implements an ambitious and far-reaching agenda, its leader is spending much of his time on the road extolling voucher programs, charter schools and collective bargaining limits to special-interest groups in other states. News coverage suggests the first-term Republican is the go-to state official for school reform tactics pushed by right-leaning organizations.

Bennett has shared the spotlight with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and media magnate Rupert Murdoch. He was keynote speaker for the national meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a political organization whose model legislation has been linked to the Koch brothers and other conservative interests. At least two of the conferences where Bennett appeared have been targeted by protests.

"Your superintendent has become a fixture on the road show of the advocates for replacing our public schools with privatization by vouchers, charters, online learning – anything but traditional public schools," said Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush who now advocates on behalf of public education.

In an interview, Bennett defended his appearances around the country as "an honor" for the state of Indiana. He said costs have been covered by the organizations he spoke to, although the Indiana Department of Education hasn't released travel expense reports in spite of repeated requests.

"These states or these groups view us as a leader and have asked us to share with them the things we've been able to do," he said. "I really see it as a compliment."

On the move

The state superintendent's travels began as soon as last year's legislature adjourned. In May, he gave the Ohio Senate Finance Committee a presentation on Indiana's education overhaul. The how-to session, prepared by the Indiana Department of Education, noted a first step was "acknowledging the mess" in Indiana schools. He offered tips for countering critics who espouse a "sky is falling syndrome," illustrating his comments with a protest poster depicting the superintendent as Darth Vader and Gov. Mitch Daniels as an evil wizard.

One of the superintendent's few out-of-state trips noted publicly was the "Education Reform Idol Contest" hosted in Washington, D.C., by the Fordham Institute. The mock competition pitted representatives from Indiana, Florida and other states against one another in a rather embarrassing send-up of "American Idol." The judges, who included a senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation, named Indiana the "reformiest" state.

Group travel

Not announced publicly was Bennett's trip to the National Summit on Education Reform in San Francisco. He was joined by nine members of the Department of Education and Todd Huston, his former chief of staff and chairman of the new Indiana Charter School Board.

The superintendent said the trip allowed his staff to meet with officials from around the country and share ideas on "how we could do things better."

News coverage of the conference highlighted its conflict. Held in the early days of the Occupy Wall Street protests, pickets demonstrated outside the Palace Hotel event to decry corporate involvement in public education. Dale Chu, one of Bennett's five assistant superintendents, posted numerous comments on Twitter during the event, including praise for a DOE colleague who tried to tackle a protester at News Corp. CEO Murdoch's speech. The media mogul, embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal in Great Britain, has holdings that include Wireless Generation, which sells software to schools.

Asked about expenses for the Indiana participants, press secretary Alex Damron said in an email that scholarships were provided by the Foundation for Educational Excellence, the organization established by Jeb Bush and the sponsor.

"The foundation provided scholarships for all attendees to present or discuss implementation of the recent policies Indiana has pursued," he wrote. "This is not unexpected, as Indiana is a national leader when it comes to education policy issues many other states are currently pursuing."

A spokeswoman for the foundation confirmed that it covered all costs for the San Francisco trip, including lodging, meals and transportation. The foundation's donors include the Walton Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and corporations that do business with schools: McGraw Hill, K12 Management, Apple and more.

Who's paying?

Bennett said he's not aware of any taxpayer dollars being spent on the trips, but efforts to verify that were unsuccessful. An informal request submitted on Nov. 3 for travel records and expenses was acknowledged by Bennett's staff, but no information was offered. A formal request sent Dec. 1 was rebuffed a week later for failure to "identify with additional particularity."

A third, detailed request was submitted Dec. 22, followed by an email inquiry this past week. DOE attorney Andrew Kossack, who formerly served as the state's public access counselor, replied that the employee responsible for creating and maintaining expense reimbursement request forms had accepted another position. After 4 p.m. Friday, Kossack emailed 31 pages of out-of-state travel authorization forms, noting that the amounts indicated were not necessarily the costs incurred. He earlier had denied a request for correspondence regarding trips taken by Bennett and other key staffers. Under state law, such correspondence constitutes a public record and must be available for inspection.

Even if no tax money went toward the trips, an advocate for government transparency suggests that Bennett should disclose who was picking up the tab.

"This is very different for a superintendent of instruction to participate in political gatherings," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. "I think he needs to come forward very quickly with who is funding all of his travels."

Bennett said he sees no conflict in accepting trips.

"I'm not profiting from this," he said.

Ravitch points to the wealthy foundations supporting education reform – "The Billionaire Boys' Club," she writes in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

"These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state," she writes. "They are bastions of unaccountable power."

Likewise for the corporate interests.

"There's no evidence that any of these changes will improve education for kids, though they are sure to show a tidy profit for entrepreneurs," she wrote in an email. "A lot of money will be directed to the people behind these schemes. Lots of people on Wall Street are cheering for the new education industry. It has great returns for investors on the taxpayers' dime. Not so much if you really care about children or education or the future of our society."

Chiefs for Change

Much of Bennett's travel is tied to his post as chairman of Chiefs for Change, an organization of "like-minded national education reform leaders," organized under the Foundation for Education Excellence umbrella. All of the group's members were elected as Republicans or appointed by Republican governors.

He also has traveled as a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a national group advocating common-core academic standards, and for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan group that recently has come under fire for foreign trips taken by top state school officials. Bennett, however, is not one of them.

"Would you believe I've never owned a passport?" he said.

Most of Bennett's U.S. travel has been to gatherings that are decidedly partisan, most notably the December meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council. Critics charge that ALEC's corporate overseers dictate the content of model legislation introduced at the state level. The ALEC meeting also was the target of anti-Wall Street demonstrations.

Bennett's Republican predecessor achieved national status during her four terms as Indiana schools chief, but Suellen Reed's participation was with nonpartisan groups, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Education Commission of the States.

In a telephone interview last week, Reed recalled that much of her out-of-state travel over 16 years was associated with implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"I felt it was important to keep a seat at the table," Reed said. "I felt (the law) could be better if we could sit down and work things out. We didn't get them to change some of the big things, but we did make a difference."

She said her expenses were generally covered by the national groups, but efforts were made to keep costs down by meeting near major airports.

"We always tried to get the lowest possible price," Reed said.

Department duties

While Bennett has been taking his reform record on the road, his employees have been busy implementing the myriad new programs. The superintendent insists his travels haven't been a distraction as his staff carries out ongoing duties and crafts rules regarding vouchers, teacher evaluations, school letter grades and more.

"I email at three o'clock in the morning. I work seven days a week," Bennett said. "I don't think anyone in this department ever doubts my involvement in what we are doing. I believe in my heart I have the best staff in the nation."

There also is the question of the value of Bennett's time spent out of state. What's in it for Indiana students and taxpayers?

"Countless benefits," Bennett said, citing a trip this month to meet with the Oklahoma superintendent, another Chiefs for Change member. "I took three pages of notes. We shared about our federal waivers."

Although he insisted that states are "more focused on learning from each other than they ever have been before," not every state is on board. All of the major education stakeholders in Kansas, including the leadership of the state department of education, declined to participate in a conference Bennett attended there.

Finally, Common Cause's Vaughn points out that Bennett is promoting school changes that have yet to show results.

"It's still kind of early on in the game to go out and tout these laws," she said. "It's one thing to testify in front of Congress. What really raises questions is when you are going out and being a cheerleader for causes characterized as anti-teacher, anti-union."

What the state superintendent extols isn't academic success – it's political success. He won an easy battle, backed by a popular governor using his own political capital to get a GOP-controlled legislature on board.

What Indiana voters should demand in the next year is real evidence that the newly approved measures are making a difference and assurances that the ideological and corporate partners with whom the superintendent is aligned aren't profiting at the expense of Indiana public schools. Only then will it be time to spread the story.

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Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@ jg.net.

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