The recent articles regarding the tenure and actions of Dr. Tony Bennett clearly provide the basis from which one can understand the animus and distrust of educators across Indiana and beyond. But my guess is that Tony Bennett didn’t dream up the changes he advanced for Indiana schools.
Several brain trusts across the country write legislative proposals for legislators, programs for governors, and action plans for state education leaders. And special interests fund both the organizations and the political campaigns of those who advocate their thinking.
Spend time in the Indiana Secretary of State’s Indiana Election Division reviewing the campaign finance reports of Dr. Bennett, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, and numerous legislative leaders, and you will soon learn why Dr. Bennett was so passionate about moving charter schools forward. Contributions of such large amounts to anyone’s campaign have to bring pressure and expectations of access to the elected official and action from that official when desired.
The financial demands to win an election are huge. Dr. Bennett spent $1,866,743.43 in his campaign during 2012. And he lost. Contributions of $65,000 from Christel DeHahn, $55,150 from Hoosiers for Economic Growth -- which also donated large amounts to legislators positioned to impact educational legislation and was itself the recipient of large amounts of money from an organization in Washington D.C. -- and $49,965 from the American Federation for Children Action Fund were necessary for the $1.8 million 2012 campaign.
Large contributions can twist and conflict their recipients. And they would twist and conflict most of us.
So, with Dr. Bennett gone, is the special treatment for charter schools over? Hardly. Not known to most Hoosiers is the fact that the 2013 Indiana Legislature, with the governor’s signature, enacted into law the HB 1001 budget bill, including a provision added in the Senate that forgave all Common School Fund debts owed by charter schools in Indiana.
Based upon a printout dated Jan. 2, 2013, that provision forgave charter schools $81,828,253.30. Some reports have placed the value at $93 million. With the passage of this legislation, the forgiven debt and the assets purchased by the borrowed funds became the assets of the individuals and/or corporations that sponsor the charter schools -- an $80 million gift to charter school sponsors.
Public school districts with low assessed valuation borrow from the Common Schools Fund, which assists them by providing low-interest loans for capital expenditures, such as facilities and equipment. A report on Jan. 2, 2013, shows $85,508,760.18 is owed by Indiana public school districts. Their debt was not forgiven. The full amount remains due and payable over an agreed term with payment coming directly from local taxpayers. There was no special treatment or gifts for taxpayer-supported traditional public schools.
In addition, due to recent legislation, if a taxpayer-built and -funded school facility becomes excess property for a school district, a charter school can lay claim at no cost. They just get the property. Notwithstanding that the district might have been able to sell the property and use those funds to meet other needs in the district and thus avoid the need to collect more taxes from its public.
My concern is that, while Dr. Bennett is gone, the real problem remains. Those millions of campaign dollars remain available to elect candidates who will further the charter school cause with special rules and considerations. I hope that Dr. Bennett understands that some contributions came at a high cost to him and to us. Other elected officials should be reminded of that as well.
Dr. Roger Thornton is the former superintendent of Kokomo School Corp. and the retired president of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.