News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Flashpoint

September 7, 2013

Flashpoint: Perhaps Tony Bennett was right?

What if Tony Bennett was right and the Associated Press got it wrong?

You may start preparing yourself for the possibility.

Reading the emails of public officials is great fun, considering the reaction from Tom LoBianco’s Associated Press story about the 2012 development of Indiana’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.)

People are finally starting to question the completeness of a story based on a handful of emails, out of what must be tens of thousands, because a narrow selection of emails does not provide anything resembling an appropriate level of context for a story this complicated.

If you read the AP story, you are led to believe Bennett changed the letter grade a school from a “C” to an “A” because the school’s founder is a 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, had provided schools with preliminary letter grades and asked schools to help identify problems with the new system.

Bennett’s concern was well founded, because the initial formula penalized schools for not graduating any seniors. This school, and a few other new or growing schools, didn’t have any seniors to graduate. Adjusting the formula to avoid punishing these schools was something Bennett had the authority to do, and was unquestionably the appropriate action.

But none of that was in the AP story.

Which brings us to an important question. 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?

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?

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. Contact him at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.

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