Pharos-Tribune

August 29, 2013

SAVAGE: What if Tony Bennett was right?

By Cam Savage
Guest columnist

---- — 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.

Reading 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 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 emails.”

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 previously worked at the Department of Education for former Superintendent Tony Bennett. He can be reached at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.