Thursday, August 1, 2013

Politics and Education's Volatile Mix UPDATE

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned today after emails were leaked recently that showed his staff -- while he was commissioner in Indiana -- changed their state's report card system and a prominent donor's Charter School went from a C to an A.

Bennett's resignation indicates there may have been more to this story than even that. But I'll leave it to the facts that come out in the ensuing days to determine that. What I'm really chilled by is how this story unfolded.

The first I heard of this story was a couple days ago. And it sounded an awful lot like what goes on in Ohio with David Brennan and other big money Charter School operators here. Their sway over Ohio politicians is well documented here and here.

However, I saw shortly after the story broke that Bennett explained his actions to Rick Hess (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) here. And the explanation at least sounded plausible. The new report card system did not properly calculate test scores for schools that did not have 11th or 12th grades, like the Charter School that Bennett's department worked so hard to help.

Now Bennett's quick resignation makes me wonder if this is all to this story. I was a reporter with a pretty good BS meter, after all. And, in fact, according to Ann Hyslop's blog, I have good reason to have my radar on.

But let's just say, for argument's sake, that Bennett's explanation is exactly what happened.

If Indiana was able to fix a problem with a new accountability tool because a well-connected Charter School operator told them there was a problem, does it mean they are rigging the system for that operator? Or does it mean they are fixing a flaw in the system?

Coming from Ohio, where Charter School operators do stuff like this a lot, has so built up my cynicism about this stuff that rigging becomes my immediate reaction. But what if David Brennan pointed out something that was a problem with Ohio's new accountability system that happened to benefit his schools? Would that make the problem NOT a problem? And would the system get fixed? Or would the politics dictate a scandal?

I think what this incident points out is just how poisonous education policy has become thanks to big campaign contributions. Everything officials do now is questioned if it benefits big contributors, even if the change is potentially good.

Let me call it the Ohioification of Education Politics. In Ohio, this practice of rewarding big campaign contributors is so ingrained that it is second nature around here. So big political contributors like Ohio Charter School operators keep getting more and more money while school districts' coffers are consistently drained to do it. Tell me something I haven't known for 15 years, right?

This is why School Choice advocates who fight for quality school choices in Ohio are up in arms and face such a struggle to make necessary changes to the education policy landscape here. If Bennett had done what he did in Ohio, there would have maybe been a story or two somewhere, but there is no way he would have resigned. No way. His story would have been enough to keep him on the job.

But in Florida and Indiana, where the politics haven't been nearly as big, centralized and entrenched as Ohio's, that's too much. Don't worry, though, give those states a few more years and a couple David Brennan types and pretty soon people like Bennett will be able to survive such accusations.