Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett abruptly resigned last week from the education company K12 Inc. after his racially charged remarks on abortion and crime sparked a firestorm of criticism.
Within days of the comments during his call-in radio show, Mr. Bennett cut his ties to the privately held, McLean, Va.-based company that he co-founded in 1999. Besides serving as the chairman of K12’s board, Mr. Bennett had a part-time job with the company that involved attending public events and meeting with clients and prospective clients. K12 operates virtual schools and provides curricula to more than 50,000 students in cyber charters, regular schools, and home-school families.
William J. Bennett, the U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, drew fire for his comments about abortion and crime during this exchange Sept. 28 on the Salem Radio Network’s “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America.”
CALLER: I noticed the national media, you know, they talk a lot about the loss of revenue, or the inability of the government to fund Social Security, and I was curious, and I’ve read articles in recent months here, that the abortions that have happened since Roe v. Wade, the lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30-something years, could fund Social Security as we know it today. And the media just doesn’t—never touches this at all.
BENNETT: Assuming they’re all productive citizens?
CALLER: Assuming that they are. Even if only a portion of them were, it would be an enormous amount of revenue.
BENNETT: Maybe, maybe, but we don’t know what the costs would be, too. I think as —abortion[s] disproportionately occur among single women? No.
CALLER: I don’t know the exact statistics, but quite a bit are, yeah.
BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don’t know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don’t know. I mean, it cuts both—you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well—
CALLER: Well, I don’t think that statistic is accurate.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t think it is either, I don’t think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don’t know. But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.
SOURCE: Media Matters for America
“Given the controversy surrounding the remarks I made on my radio show, I am stepping down from my positions at K12, so that neither the mission of the company, nor its children, are affected, distracted, or harmed in any way,” he said in a written statement on Oct. 3. Mr. Bennett also maintained that his comments were distorted and taken out of context by critics.
The remarks he made on the Sept. 28 broadcast of “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America,” his three-hour daily radio show on the Irving, Texas-based Salem Radio Network, came in response to a caller who raised the idea that abortions could be costing the federal government revenue by lowering population growth.
Mr. Bennett expressed doubts about that notion and referred to Freakonomics, a best-selling book by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, which hypothesizes that legalized abortion has lowered crime.
“But I do know that it’s true,” Mr. Bennett said, “that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.
“That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do,” he said, “but your crime rate would go down.”
Ron Packard, also a co-founder of K12 and the chairman of its board of directors’ executive committee, said he was “quite surprised” when he read Mr. Bennett’s remarks, which drew widespread condemnation, including from civil rights groups, commentators, educators, politicians, and the White House.
Mr. Packard convened an emergency board meeting over the Oct. 1-2 weekend to discuss what to do about Mr. Bennett. But he resigned even before the board met, Mr. Packard said.
“We’ve really severed the relationship,” he said of the connection between Mr. Bennett and K12 Inc.
Contracts in the Balance
Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia school district, was among the education leaders who were offended and angered by Mr. Bennett’s remarks, said Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman.
“Over 78 percent of our kids are African-American, and [Mr. Bennett’s] comments upset a lot of people, and it really upset Mr. Vallas,” said Mr. Gallard.
Mr. Vallas repeatedly told K12 Inc. officials that his district’s contracts with K12 and any future ones might be jeopardized if Mr. Bennett remained on the company’s board, Mr. Gallard continued. The district has two contracts totaling $3 million with K12. One is a three-year contract to provide K-3 science curricula and materials systemwide. The other provides professional development to teachers at Hunter Elementary School.
Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, also lambasted Mr. Bennett, saying that his responsibility as education secretary during President Reagan’s second term was to serve in all students’ best interests.
“With thinking like [Mr. Bennett’s], it is no wonder that schools with a predominantly minority student population are left to languish,” he said in a Sept. 30 statement. “Here you have a former secretary of education writing these children off before they even enter the classroom. If that is his perspective before they are born, imagine how that translates into a lack of concern in ensuring they have a quality education.”
This isn’t the first time that K12 Inc. and Mr. Bennett, a former drug-policy chief under President George H.W. Bush and the editor of The Book of Virtues (1993) and The Children’s Book of Virtues (1995), have been under public scrutiny.
Critics have asked whether K12 benefited from political connections when Arkansas landed grants from the U.S. Department of Education totaling $4.1 million in 2002 and 2003 for a virtual school project with the company. The agency has defended those grants. (“Federal Grant Involving Bennett’s K12 Inc. Questioned,” July 28, 2004.)
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bennett Quits K12 Inc.UnderFire