INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — In algebra, students are required to
show the steps taken to come to their answer, in part because teachers
need to see whether they grasp the concepts.
Indiana's former state superintendent Tony Bennett hid his calculations
when coming up with the school-grading formula last year, working backward
to make the equation fit a predetermined answer: an "A'' for Republican
donor Christel DeHaan's charter school. His staff was quietly asked to
figure out the rest.
The only reason the grade-changing scandal was unveiled was because it was
detailed in emails he never deleted from his computer.
The fallout has cost Bennett his seven-month tenure as education
commissioner in Florida and launched a pair of state reviews into the
validity of a school-grading system that's at the center of a national
education overhaul movement.
Bennett called the reports last week "malicious and unfounded" as he
resigned in Florida, but school superintendents in Indiana said the emails
finally began to give them the answers they so desperately searched for
last year from Bennett and his team.
In Indiana, the state protects emails as public records. Jim Corridan,
state archivist and director of the Indiana Commission on Public Records,
points out that most emails must be saved for three years. Emails and
other files dealing with policy can be required to be preserved
permanently at the State Archives.
For the most part, emails can be legally "destroyed" after the three-year
time frame, and not every trivial note — like if Bennett had written to
his wife to say he'd be late for dinner — must be preserved.
But actually obtaining copies of crucial emails is a tough task, as state
officials often rely on the "work product" exception to argue the missives
should not be released.
When the Purdue University Board of Trustees appointed by then-Gov. Mitch
Daniels chose him to run the university, information on his hiring was
nearly impossible to come by.
The Lafayette Journal and Courier filed a complaint last year that the
board violated the state's open meetings law by holding an executive
session at an undisclosed location in Chicago O'Hare International
Airport. But the state's public access counselor, also appointed by
Daniels, determined that simply knowing the meeting would happen at the
out-of-state location was open enough.
When the Indianapolis Star went looking for records of the deliberations
over Daniels' hiring, Purdue wrote back it had none, and even it did, the
public couldn't see them.
This is not to say state government officials conduct all public business
behind locked doors. Indiana does an exceptional job streaming committee
meetings online and providing documents such as campaign donations and
legislation in easily searchable formats online.
But official documents only provide the neatly prepared version of the
story. And many times, they leave out critical information.
Local school superintendents who had their schools assessed by Bennett and
his team last year, with the possibility of being taken over by the state
or losing funding, found it incredibly hard to get straight answers. The
widespread confusion over how the grades were calculated led Republican
legislative leaders to send the "A-F" grading system back to the drawing
board during the 2013 session.
While the Bennett emails begin to answer some of the confusion — and raise
new questions — it still isn't clear exactly what Bennett and his staff
changed in the formula. That will take answers from a pair of state-level
And probably some more emails.