Commentary: What if Bennett was right?

By Cam Savage
TheStatehouseFile.com

What if Tony Bennett was right and the Associated Press got it wrong? Time, and a few investigations, some credible and some not, hopefully will tell the full story, but you may start preparing yourself for the possibility.

Commentary button in JPG - no shadowReading the emails of public officials is great fun, or so it seems, considering the reaction from Tom LoBianco’s Associated Press story about the 2012 development of the Indiana Department of Education’s A-F grading system under former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

LoBianco based his story on a very small number of emails between Bennett and his staff, of which I was a part in 2009 and early 2010. (Full

Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns.

Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns.

disclosure: LoBianco apparently requested my emails, too. But we’ll get to his records requests in a minute.)

Few have bothered to question the completeness of a story based on a handful of emails, out of what must be tens of thousands.

One prominent Indiana columnist I know and respect even wrote that it was “disappointing to see some Republicans last week fiercely defending Bennett’s actions,” so confident was he in the completeness and accuracy of one story, based entirely on quoting a few select emails that were part of a project and system developed over the course of months, if not years.

A narrow selection of emails might give columnists and reporters confidence to condemn, but what they can’t give you is context. Context is more important.

If you read the AP story, you are led to believe Bennett changed the letter grade a school was supposed to receive from a “C” to an “A” because the school’s founder is a prominent donor to Republicans.

Missing from this absurd, and false, contention is the fact that the emails came during the initial creation of the A-F grading system. What difference does that make? During this time, the Department of Education was working with schools to ensure the grading system was fair and accurate. Moreover, the department had provided schools with preliminary letter grades and asked schools to help identify problems with the new system.

Bennett’s concern that this particular school registered a “C” grade under initial system trials was well founded. Because the school only served students in kindergarten through the 10th grade, the initial formula penalized the school for not graduating any seniors. This is an obvious problem, because this school, and a few others, didn’t have any seniors. Adjusting the formula to avoid punishing these schools was certainly something Bennett had the authority to do, but unquestionably, was the appropriate thing to do.

Jonathan Plucker, who at the time was the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, and sometimes found himself at odds with Bennett, was part of a working group that developed the elementary and middle school accountability model for the Department of Education’s A-F plan. Plucker wrote this week for EdWeek.com that he tested his own recommended A-F model against schools he knew to be high-performing, including Christel House.

Plucker wrote, “In the end, we ran around two dozen schools through the model. Yes, Christel House was one of them, but the vast majority were traditional public schools. It was meant to be a validity check, and I buy that justification for why certain schools were “targeted” in the offending e-mails.”

No one has disputed that Christel House is a high performing school.

But none of that was in the first AP story (or any follow up stories that haven’t been written).

Which brings us to an important question, as yet unasked by anyone else in the media. How did the AP acquire these emails in the first place?

The AP stories indicate the emails came through public records requests. But how did the reporter know which records to request? Is this distinguished journalism or just the by-product of old school political leaking?

When an open government advocate asked the Glenda Ritz administration for copies of both the AP’s records request and the emails provided to the AP reporter on which the story was based, he was first told that such records did not exist. When pressed, three days later Ritz’s attorney suddenly found the AP’s requests, but has still refused to provide the responses, including the emails presumably provided to the AP.

If they provided them once to a reporter, shouldn’t they be readily available to anyone else?

All this is curious.

Is it possible, even probable, that a few emails, hand-selected and leaked to a reporter who made no attempt to put the emails in their proper context could result in a story that got the material facts wrong? If that initial AP story was wrong, then everything that has spewed forth since is getting it wrong, too.

Is it finally time to consider the possibility that Tony Bennett was right?

Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He also worked at the Department of Education for former Superintendent Tony Bennett. He is a graduate of Franklin College. He can be reached at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.

 

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10 Responses to Commentary: What if Bennett was right?

  1. Cam, your old pal here. I am not sure why it is significant that the story was leaked. That seems like misdirection, like an ad hominem criticism. A lot of stories are leaked. The Pentagon Papers were leaked. Watergate was leaked. Recently, the NSA surveillance story was leaked. The IRS story that kept right-wing talk radio in business for two months this year wasn’t leaked – it was flat-out handed to the press by the agency itself. Almost every story I ever broke as a reporter began with a leak. How in any way does that discount the substance of the information? There is no dishonor in cultivating sources and receiving guidance to information, particularly in a case like this when the reporter is not acting as a mouthpiece for anonymous criticism, but rather relaying the subject’s own words or documents. The state can continue to debate Bennett’s actions – to answer your question, even if he was right, he went about it in an indefensible manner, away from the public eye, and for indefensible motives. But resorting to attacking the reporting skills of the messenger is, again, misdirection that has no relevance to the discussion.

  2. Context is important and it is possible that, placed in an appropriate context, Tony Bennett’s actions might appear to be more defensible. But that begs the question whether the policies he was advocating and the manner in which he promoted them were the right ones for Indiana. Certainly the voters registered their view in no uncertain terms and long before these emails came to light. Was that only because of his abrasive, bullying persona, as Republicans like to think, or a rejection of the policies themselves? A lot of Republican politicians have ridden a tough guy manner to electoral success — Chris Christie, John McCain and Rick Perry come to mind — although few have been as vinegary as Bennett. But is it just possible that local school boards, teachers and parents are tired of being pushed around by Indianapolis politicians with ideological/business agendas? And that the issue was not just personality but policy? Politics is a tough and nasty business, mostly about power and money. Bennett played it tough and lost. As they say, what goes around comes around.

  3. Not so fast, cam. If only it were that simple. Slate.com debunked the myth of christel house not having 11th and 12th graders and how the DOE jiggered the data. It is not a pretty picture. At the end of the day, i see this sad story as one of an over reaction by bennett and his minions to the political fallout that may or may not have resulted from a favorite donor, their legislative allies, and their blind ambition.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/do_the_math/2013/08/tony_bennett_education_an_astonishing_act_of_statistical_chutzpah_in_the.single.html

  4. Cam, you raise some valid points. I remember the deparent releasing preliminary scores so school corporations could provide feedback and better understand the new accountability system. The deparent held a public hearing based on the data they released.

    One thing that people can’t accuse Gov. Daniels and Dr. Bennett of is doing nothing. If they want to be critical theyay say they tried to do too much, too fast. Indiana is better off because of their leadership.

    I believe that goverment has the responsibility to do the public’s work in public and in a transparent way. I do not think it is the role of elected officials to spend the taxpayers money to comb thru e-mails of the previous administration and leak them to the public out of context. I don’t think people demonstrate leadership by tearing others down.

  5. Pingback: Jacob Perry: In defense of Tony Bennett | Context Florida

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