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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Former Indiana State Chief Tony Bennett and the Politics of Personal Destruction

By Rick Hess — July 10, 2014 2 min read
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One thing I dislike about the steady growth of government is the way that more and more activity becomes subject to policy, code, rule, and regulation. This makes it increasingly easy for public servants to run afoul of something, giving political opponents, self-serving opportunists, and crusading journalists the chance to score points by taking people out. (Note: I’m not talking about hard-hitting or over-the-top disagreement, but efforts to get someone convicted of wrongdoing on dubious grounds.)

This has always struck me as one compelling argument for the merits of smaller, more limited government, where less stuff happens under the auspice of the state or with public funds. In the meantime, it seems healthy to show some moderation and restraint with those with whom we happen to disagree. I believe we all suffer for the eagerness with which folks now play at what Bill Clinton once termed “the politics of personal destruction.”

Readers may recall that, last summer, Tony Bennett resigned the Florida superintendency when slammed with alleged improprieties from his tenure as Indiana state chief. Well, yesterday, a year after the fact, Indiana’s Office of the Inspector General finally released its report. The IG found that, contrary to allegations, there were “no Code of Ethics violations” in how Bennett implemented Indiana’s “A to F” grading system. Despite media stories that suggested otherwise, the IG reported that Bennett was “not prohibited from engaging in political activity” while serving in his official capacity and did not violate the political activity rule in any way. The IG submitted its investigation to the prosecutor’s office in Marion County, which “declined” to prosecute.

The settlement did include one confession of wrongdoing. Bennett paid a fine and acknowledged responsibility for personal use of the Department of Education’s computer system. The funny thing is that what Bennett did would have been okay if he’d drawn up a policy that said he was allowed to use the computers for limited political purposes, like maintaining a consolidated calendar and responding to e-mails of a political nature from constituents. But, because he hadn’t drawn up a policy saying he could do this, he wasn’t allowed to. Okay, so be it. Bennett manned up, admitted his misstep, and paid a fine.

On one hand, you might say that the process played out and worked as it should. And that would be kind of true, except for the circus that descended upon Bennett last summer, the damage done to his reputation, his having to walk away from a job that he was exceptionally good at, and the fact that observers have now learned that one way to win education policy debates is to smear their opponents. As we deal with heated, brewing debates over the Common Core, teacher evaluation, tenure laws, and much else, this sorry episode holds lessons worth keeping in mind.

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