Friday, August 2, 2013

Tony Bennett School Grade Scandal Also Highlights Failure of His Staff to Give Him Honest Advice

The last few days I've watched the scandal play out involving former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.  Email disclosures indicate that Bennett and many of this top staffers discussed manipulating the A-F grade formula so that a favored charter school, Chrystel House Academy would receive an "A" rather than a "C."   The charter school was founded by Christel DeHaan, who has given $130,000 to Bennett.

Tony Bennett
I don't blame DeHaan who has long been an advocate of education reform and consistently backed education reform with large, legal political contributions.   There is no evidence that she requested that her school's grade be changed and I highly doubt that ever happened.  That doesn't mean, however, that a politician having received a $130,000 donation would not feel compelled to try to keep that donor happy. That's human nature.

What strikes me though as a proper discussion topic, which doesn't seem to be so far, is the role of Bennett's staff in the scandal.

Too often when politicians rise to power they develop a dangerous hubris, a belief that they can do no wrong.  Those politicians often become isolated, surrounding themselves with staff that consists of yes men and women who ratify the hubris.   Staffers who dare express contrary views to the politicians are marginalized, perhaps even fired.  Very often these staffers are young, inexperienced and often don't have strong personalities. They are the perfect types of staffers to help a politician's hubris grow even larger.  When it came to the discussion of changing the Chrystel House Academy's grade, most of Bennett's staffers simply went along with the notion while never telling their boss that his idea was terrible and could get him in trouble.

During the last few years of Bennett's tenure as Indiana's education chief, I heard a lot of frustration from education reformers not only about Bennett, but also about members of his staff who were not very supportive of reforms like charter schools.  Increasingly surrounding by status quo establishment staffers, Bennett had become closed off to much of the education reform movement.  Education reformers and Republican state legislators were complaining about Bennett the last couple years of his tenure, and even going so far as to rebuke the Superintendent by passing a bill providing for a summer study committee.

Part of the problem was Bennett and his ever increasing ego.  But also problematic was a staff that acted to ratify Bennett's increasingly isolated thinking about education reform and to protect him from diverse views.   That is a mistake that politicians like Governor Mike Pence cannot repeat.  When Gov. Pence hires top staffers, he needs to look for experience and for strong personalities who aren't intimidated by the fact he is a Governor.  He needs people who are willing to tell him the truth, even when that truth is not something he wants to hear.

Bennett's fall is not only the result of own hubris, but it was a result of a staff members who failed in their professional duties to give their boss honest advice about a foolish course he was choosing.


varangianguard said...

He surrounded himself with people of his own choice. No sympathy from me. They are there for a reason.

Unknown said...

varangianguard is correct that within his senior management team that when along with the boss.

Ellen said...

You're kidding, right?

The buck stops with Bennett, not his staff (didn't a bunch of 'em move to Florida with him?).

JeffW said...

Everything I have read over the past six years is Tony Bennett only listens to two folks, Mitch Daniels and himself.

I imagine being on Bennett's staff is one of the worst jobs in America.

Flogger said...

I do not recall who the General was, but he followed Hitler's orders. When the offensive failed in the Soviet Union he was relieved of command. He mentioned he learned not to remind a dictator that, he was following Hitler's instructions.

The fact of life is in business, the military, or politics speaking up can have serious consequences. It would be a very rare leader who can take constructive criticism.

If we did not have a political system that allows lavish Campaign Donations the situation Bennett found himself would not have occurred.

artfuggins said...

I think when you personally donate $130,000 to the candidate for State Superintendent and $2.8 million to local GOP candidates and committees that you don't need to make a request for special consideration. That is an automatic.

Indy Rob said...

My issue is that tony Bennett came up with an over simplified metric to evaluate schools, and then when a donor's school could not meet that benchmark , Tony decided that the metric should be modified in order to give a charter school a higher score.

This shows two things, that the metric is/was a bad measure of the school, and Tony was willing to change the rules to accommodate a friend or maybe a philosophy.

These were not decisions made by his staff.

Unknown said...

His policies failed and he claims they worked, isn't that the Republican way?

all hear this said...

Paul you hit the nail on the head with respect to Bennett's hubris. Bennett's staff is not unique among GOP circles in the Hoosier state. I'm a transplant from the east coast who upon my recruitment to a local political office, soon learned a hard and harsh lesson about the stark reality that there seems to be a battalion of 'yes' people involved in the government of this state, guarding it from anyone who has the nerve to speak up.

Never have I seen the rules of basic decent behavior be so openly flouted by people who put on such a show of moral superiority. I don't think this is specific to Republicans, just to lifelong politicians.

Republican voters are the majority in this state, and as such there comes the long neglected responsibility of gatekeeping. But a large number of republicans in this state seem to have no idea how dishonest, duplicitous, and cloying their officials can be, and how deeply ingrained the culture of "yes" is in these offices. They seem unable to point out a RINO for a REAL-O. Instead they are addicted to the tit-for-tat ax grinding between dems and repubs. My guess is that there is some kind of cultural blind-spot that seems to be in play where political powers understand just how to measure out just the right kind of "slight of hand" in order to get what they need without attracting too much attention.

Beware of Indiana. Land a job in the wrong political office, or simply cross paths with it, and its insiders will make a sport out of destroying your career for something as small as some kind of perceived political slight, even if you are as unassuming, civil, and professional as you know how to be.

For a party that is supposed to be standing up for hard-work and self-made individuals, they don't care the least about creating an environment where that level of achievement is fostered, much less rewarded.

Instead the bureaucratic outposts of the party continue rewarding desperate and feckless wannabe insiders foaming at the mouth to get the freebies and perceived "prestige" that goes along with the lewd and lascivious work of lubing the machine.

Everything here is politicized...even the BMV !!! The free markets are dying, be it in industry or education. Pols won't stop until everything is centrally controlled, and when that happens all hope will be lost. My solution: I'm moving.