Indiana Department of Education Fails to Release Documents on Tony Bennett, Jeb Bush, and Other School Privatizers
By Doug Martin
On Friday afternoon, just days before the next state supt. of public education will be elected, Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, Joseph B. Hoage, quietly voiced his opinion on the Indiana Department of Education failing to release Freedom of Information Act documents that likely, when forced by law to be made public, will show the crony capitalism behind Tony Bennett and Jeb Bush’s school privatization plan for Indiana.
Here is the background. On February 16th, the Washington D.C. nonprofit, In the Public Interest, requested private emails and other files from Tony Bennett, and the IDOE has failed to do comply with this in a timely matter. Thus, ITPI, on October 4th, filed a formal complaint with Hoage’s Indiana PAC office, which reads in part:
In this request, the Indiana Department of Education has yet to produce documents despite acknowledgement of the request and the beginning of the review of responsive records on March 15, 2012. Even after In the Public Interest limited the scope of the request in August 2012—a limitation within the records the Department claimed it had begun collecting over six months ago—the Department has yet to produce documents. This failure to produce in such a long period of time is unreasonable. See Opinion of the Public Access Counselor 08-FC-162 (finding unreasonableness for a public records request dated January 2008 when the complaint was filed June 27, 2008 despite the public records request being “more involved than is standard”).
Undoubtedly, the original request was specific enough for the IDOE to take immediate action, even though they deny this. In part, this earliest demand reads:
From January 1, 2010 to the date of this request, please provide a copy of all communication (including, but not limited to, email, fax, and written) “created, received, maintained, or filed with” Tony Bennett , Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction and/or his designees and the following people and organizations.
The request names Jeb Bush, as well as Joel Klein of Wireless Generation.
It continues with:
Additionally, please provide copies of any and all records of the Superintendent’s expenses that were paid for by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, or the Alliance for Excellent Education from January 1, 2010 to the date of this request.
As Fort Wayne Journal Gazette’s Karen Francisco has noted, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education paid for Bennett’s visit to D.C. on November 15, 2011, to commingle with Arne Duncan and chairman of the U.S. House Education Committee, John Kline. Besides charter schools and virtual learning outfits, the Foundation for Excellence in Education markets the fake parent trigger law, too, a hot button in Indiana.
To hint at what we might find when Bennett is finally forced to release his emails, let us look to a similar FOIA request from ITPI in Maine, which had no problem releasing the files. In September, Portland Press Herald‘s Colin Woodard detailed over 1,000 FOIA documents concerning Jeb Bush’s role in promoting for-profit online learning schools with Maine’s educational commissioner, Steven Bowen, and Governor Paul LePage. Essentially, Maine officials let Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education execute its Digital Learning Now! plan for the state, which includes, among other things, a requirement that all students take an online course in order to receive a high school diploma, as does the Indiana plan. In this passage, Woodard connects the cronyism:
K12 was especially engaged in lobbying on the charter school bill and other legislation connected with digital learning. K12 has paid $33,074 to Augusta lobbyists since 2009, and contributed $19,000 to LePage’s election effort through the RGA Maine PAC. Connections paid Maine lobbyists $3,950 last year, all of it in connection with the charter bill, which allowed virtual schools but required that they be governed by local nonprofit organizations.
K12, Inc. and Connections Academy (now owned by Pearson) have been flooding campaign donations to Bennett and Indiana Republicans. Contributions to Bennett go back to 2008, when K12 threw $2,000 his way and both online privatization outfits donated to Indiana corporate school representatives Brian Bosma, Theresa Lubbers, and Robert Behning, as they made their plans to privatize Indiana schools. Last year, Bennett received $5,000 from K12. Both K12 and Connections Academy fund Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, as well.
In Indiana, K12 runs three Hoosier Academies, two of which have been given an “F” grade and one a “D.” They also operate Indiana blending-learning schools. Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Wireless Generation is also active in the state, fundingBennett’s campaigns.
As I and others have extensively pointed out, Jeb Bush has hyped his anti-public school operations in Indiana for years now. In2009, he spoke at the Bill Gates-Fordham Foundation sponsored Indiana Education Roundtable, whose representatives include Carol D’Amico, a former George W. Bush-appointed National Board for Education Sciences board member. This year, Jeb picked Tony Bennett to boss his D.C.-based corporate school reform group, Chiefs for Change, alongside Maine’s Steven Bowen and former Edison Schools’ Chris Cerf (now New Jersey’s commissioner of education) who profited handsomely when the then-Florida governor bought out the company’s failing stock with teachers’ retirement funding, a maneuver sticking state pensioners to this day with a $182 million investment in a company out to destroy public education and unions. And Bush friends at Charter Schools USA have been given several so-called failing schools in Indiana, where parents have recently been protesting the corporate takeover.
Besides Jeb Bush, ITPI names Patricia Levesque and other school privatization/online learning marketers in Indiana, Florida, Maine.
Earlier this year, when Bennett was supposedly being scrutinized by Indiana’s Select Committee on Education, Levesque and fellow Bush operatives Mary Laura Bragg and Jaryn Emholf, both also listed in the ITPI FOIA requests) blasted several emails to them, which were leaked to me.
Levesque directs Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and his Foundation for Florida’s Future. Levesque is proud that as the current board of director of Bush’s corporate school organizations, she doesn’t take a paycheck, but this is deceptive. Levesque’s own consulting company, Meridian Strategies, raked in $100,000 in 2008 (page 8) and $123,000 in 2009 working for the Foundation for Excellence in Education (page 8). For work with Foundation for Florida’s Future, where Levesque is also executive director, her company made $276,000 in 2010 (page 8).
Levesque, who also lobbies on behalf of many virtual schools, outlined a new strategy in October 2010 at a school reform conference to privatize public schools. In an article entitled “How Outline Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools,” The Nation’s Lee Fang writes that:
Levesque noted that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. Next year, Levesque advised, reformers should “spread” the unions thin “by playing offense” with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, “even if it doesn’t pass…to keep them busy on that front.” She also advised paycheck protection, a unionbusting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly “under the radar.”
THE INDIANA PUBLIC ACCESS COUNSELOR’S COP OUT
Here is the Indiana PAC’s conclusion, which is nowhere as harsh as it should be:
Based on the foregoing, it is my opinion that the Department has acted contrary to section 3(b) of the APRA by failing to provide all records in a reasonable period of time that were responsive to the reasonably particularized portions of Ms. Kaissal’s February 22, 2012 request. However, it is my opinion that at this time the Department has complied with section 3(b) in its efforts to provide all records in a reasonable period of time that were responsive to the reasonably particularized request that was received on August 29, 2012.
As I mentioned above, the original February request is “particularized” enough. There is no legitimate reason for IDOE’s hold-up, even though it blames a small staff in the Office of Legal Affairs, among other things. Perhaps more IDOE members who are spreading corporate-run charter school and school vouchers across the state should be switching to this office. Having read over all the documents on the case, I believe the Department is stalling on releasing these potentially demaging emails and other written files from Bennett because it is waiting until after Tuesday’s election. Public Access Counselor Hoage wants it both ways, claiming the IDOE was, in fact, holding up the request, but not really.
To make matters worse, IDOE’s Heather Neal is also named in the FOIA request. Neal, if one remembers, was Indiana’s Public Access Counselor before she started working for Tony Bennett.
Bennett desires info on every Indiana teacher, so he can deem them “unaccountable” and replace them with Teach for America recruits on their temporary stop in the schools before they head off to Wall Street. He wants data on all students, so that he can declare schools as “broken” and package them up for the privatizers. But when it comes to passing cash onto friends of Jeb Bush and others who have donated to Bennett’s campaigns, like K12, Inc., Indiana’s supt. of public instruction and the IDOE feel it is not in their best interest to be examined.
When these files are finally released by law, I will gladly connect all the dots and expose Tony Bennett for the corporate school reform flunky that he truly is. In the meantime, I suggest we all file FOIA requests with the IDOE.