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Emails reveal GOP powerbrokers’ role in crafting Indiana education policy

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana education overhaul that launched the nation’s broadest school voucher program and brought sweeping changes to how teachers and schools are evaluated angered thousands of teachers and made lightning rods of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and schools chief Tony Bennett.

But emails and other documents obtained by The Associated Press show a small group of GOP powerbrokers crafted the details of the education policy that made Indiana a conservative model – over Scotch whisky at an Indianapolis steakhouse and in meetings at a private club.

In the months before the education package was unveiled to the public, its architects mulled the policy and politics of the rollout without any input from state lawmakers who’d later be tasked to pass the measures. They even debated when to loop in Daniels ahead of an election in which Republicans reclaimed control of the Statehouse.

“My thought would be that we can get the momentum going and let MD (Mitch Daniels) take the lead when he feels it is time,” Todd Huston, at that point Bennett’s chief of staff, wrote in a Feb. 10, 2010, email to other members of the group. “As soon as he takes ownership of it, whether it is (November) or May, it becomes his initiative. This would allow him to do it after the election but the work is being done prior to his taking ownership of it.”

The emails, obtained through a public records request, offer a rare glimpse into a process that takes place from state capitols to the halls of Congress, where decisions are made in private long before anything shows up in legislation or is debated in public forums.

Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics, said such processes reduce accountability.

“The public doesn’t stand a chance in that kind of scenario, and the accountability is nonexistent,” Bender said.

Mark Lubbers, a Daniels confidant brought into the fold in part for his experience with education reform two decades earlier, disagrees and says it’s normal to craft an agenda in private.

“The whole concept of when do you bring in the public is an academic question in the sense that it’s the legitimate question,” Lubbers said. “Making public policy in a democracy is the game. That is the whole game.”

Indiana’s 2011 education overhaul catapulted Bennett to stardom in national education circles before his resignation last month in Florida after The Associated Press reported he oversaw a change to Indiana’s grade-change formula to benefit a charter school run by a top GOP donor.

Its architects include a prolific fundraiser and former top economic adviser to President George W. Bush, a top Indianapolis businessman who now heads the company that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lubbers and other members of Daniels’ inner circle.

The group members, many of whom had been working on education reform for more than three decades, saw the chance to finally win long-sought changes in a state where the powerful teachers union had been weakened by a lawsuit and Republicans seemed poised to regain control of the state House of Representatives.

What had been years of informal talks quickly shifted to action – initially without state lawmakers’ involvement.

According to the emails, the group was led by Al Hubbard, a skilled fundraiser who once served as a top economic adviser to Bush, and Huston, now a state lawmaker. The group tasked Hubbard with reaching out to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for model legislation. Bush’s group has had a hand in drafting education measures in other Republican-led states including Maine.

Hubbard pitched Daniels at a Pacers game that the timing was right, while Huston drew up a draft outline of legislation.

Legislative leaders weren’t brought in to the discussions until months later.

House Education Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he began working with the governor’s staff and Bennett’s staff in the summer of 2010 to put together the 2011 legislative package.

Though he said he wasn’t aware that businessman Mark Miles and Lubbers had been helping in the effort, Behning noted that Republican lawmakers had been working on issues like school vouchers and teacher merit pay for many years. Many GOP lawmakers who’d urged Daniels to act earlier in his tenure considered the agenda long overdue.

“All of the choice issues, those have been issues the House Republicans and I have been advocates for, for most of my tenure,” said Behning, a state lawmaker since 1992. “We probably brought them more along than they brought us along.”

Throughout its deliberations, Hubbard’s group remained focused on political repercussions. Huston voiced concerns in early 2010 about how to pitch limits on collective bargaining so as not to appear “anti-teacher.” Hubbard offered guidance on what vouchers should be called.

“Language is very important. ‘Voucher’ should not be used. Perhaps ‘transfer tuition,’ ” Hubbard wrote in a July 27, 2010, email to Huston and others.

They ended up settling on “school choice scholarships.”

Their work, and fundraising help from a group led by millionaire Fred Klipsch, flipped Indiana’s House from 52-48 Democrat-controlled to a 60-40 Republican margin.

But they couldn’t save Bennett, who lost his 2012 re-election bid to teacher-supported Democrat Glenda Ritz.

Hubbard called his role in crafting the education policy “minuscule” when compared with that of elected leaders. He said the emails capture only a small part of the effort and don’t get into discussions with lawmakers, think tank leaders and dozens of others who worked on education reform.

“That’s not to say we didn’t try to influence,” he said. “But even that was much less than what those emails would suggest.”

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