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Indiana 'public' education likes to keep it private

More than eight months ago, a representative for a Washington-based watchdog group, In the Public Interest, submitted a public records request to the Indiana Department of Education. It wanted to know what communications state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff had shared with groups pushing the privatization of public education.

Last week, after months of back-and-forth communication to narrow the request and an Oct. 3 complaint alleging violation of the Indiana Public Records Act, the state's public access counselor notified a representative for the watchdog group that the Department of Education "failed to provide all records in a reasonable period of time," but that it has now complied as required.

A similar public records request in Maine didn't meet with the same resistance. More than 1,000 pages of emails resulted in this blockbuster story in the Portland Press Herald, clearly outlining the growing influence of for-profit operators in public education.

The account begins with Stephen Bowen, Bennett's counterpart in Maine, attending the same San Francisco summit of conservative education reformers that the Indiana schools chief attended with about a dozen of his top assistants last October.

Blogger Doug Martin details more of the intrigue here. Note that K12 Inc., which figures prominently in the Portland story, is a huge player in Indiana schools, thanks to Bennett and the GOP officials who have benefited from K12's campaign contributions.

I experienced the same public records frustration with the Indiana Department of Education when I tried to follow Bennett's extensive 2011 travels and to determine who was picking up the bill. Keep in mind that Bennett is an elected official -- his paycheck provided by state taxpayers.

Two of the state's former public access counselors, Andrew Kossack and Heather Neal, went to work for IDOE, so there's much institutional knowledge in responding to or blocking public records requests.

As Bennett's popularity plunged, his visits to public schools have increased. His 2011 tour as ed reform's rock star shouldn't be forgotten by Indiana voters.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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