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More travels with Tony Bennett

In a Sunday article, I looked at the frequent out-of-state trips Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction, has made since last spring to promote controversial education laws approved by the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly.

I began requesting information from the Indiana Department of Education in October. My requests were mostly ignored or rejected. When I appealed directly to Bennett, a handful of records were released the next day. In a note acknowledging that the information was not complete, DOE attorney Andrew Kossack – formerly the state's public access counselor – stated that "responding to (public records) requests cannot take priority over the Department's essential functions and duties on behalf of Indiana's educators and students."

That's an interesting assertion given that one premise of my story is that Bennett's extensive travel impedes his "essential functions and duties on behalf of Indiana's educators and students."

Voters will have to decide if his trips are a benefit or detriment to Indiana students, but they should know just how many trips he has taken. After repeated requests, Kossack emailed 31 pages of documents to me at 4:03 p.m. on Friday, when he was aware the story was scheduled for publication on Sunday. The information was generally useless, given that the travel authorization forms released do not necessarily reflect the costs incurred by taxpayers or by the foundations or interest groups picking up the tab.

They did, however, reveal a number of trips I was not aware of.

In addition to the dozen appearances detailed on a map accompanying my story, Bennett traveled (or requested to travel to) a Baltimore suburb on Aug. 1 to speak at the Agudath Israel Regional Directors Retreat. His travel was paid for by the Walton Family Foundation, which spends millions promoting school vouchers. A quick look at information on Agudath Israel shows that the Orthodox Jewish organization funds girls' schools.

Bennett traveled to Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 17-19 for a panel discussion, "How Can Autonomy and Choice Bolster Achievement in the U.S.?" The Harvard Kennedy School was to pick up the tab.

On Sept. 19-21, Bennett traveled to Boston to speak at the Chiefs for Change conference, "Changing the Bureaucracy: Reforming State Departments of Education." He then flew to New York City for a dinner/business meeting with representatives of the conservative Manhattan Institute and a luncheon with Student Achievement Partners, arranged by the former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein, who now works for Rupert Murdoch's Wireless Generation. The Pioneer Public Policy Research Center, a privately funded school choice advocacy organization, picked up the airfare. Estimated cost to taxpayers was $786.

On Oct. 26, one day after attending a national charter school conference in Florida, Bennett planned to travel to Chicago to participate in a conference on teacher certification and testing sponsored by Pearson Evaluation Systems. Earlier that month, the DOE awarded a contract to Pearson Evaluation Systems to develop and administer the Indiana educator licensing testing program.

He was off to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15 for a meeting with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, and Congressman John Kline, chairman of the House Education Committee, according to a travel request. His costs, according to the form, were covered by Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is – in turn – funded by foundations and corporate donors.

In addition to the superintendent's travel, there were numerous travel authorization requests for his top assistants. While most indicated their costs were covered by the sponsoring groups or privately funded foundations, I still don't know if that's the case. The DOE, with two former public access counselors on its staff, has yet to turn over any records showing actual travel costs.

So much for transparency in government.

Note: To see the map that accompanied my Sunday story, click on the small "PDF Bennett travels map" above the photo.

Related

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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