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$1.7 million debacle


In addition to coping with fallout from unproven education reform measures approved before she took office, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is trying to figure out what to do with an extravagant – and questionable – expenditure by her predecessor.

Shortly before his election defeat, former Superintendent Tony Bennett bought $1.7 million worth of high-tech video-conferencing equipment from a California-based company that employed his former chief of staff, Todd Huston.

The costly equipment requires more communications bandwidth than the Department of Education has available and doesn’t align with existing hardware. It also supports video-conferencing technology that is available online at no cost.

But there’s more than the legacy of a costly boondoggle to consider with the $1.7 million equipment purchase, which coincided with cuts of millions of dollars in classroom spending. The Cisco Systems deal should give Indiana lawmakers second thoughts about the entire education reform package the former administration sold them. His staffers told the Indianapolis Star the costly equipment was a way to connect Bennett’s office with educators across the state – “a dynamic way for dispersed teams to connect – visually, collaboratively and effectively.”

Is the spin that is used to justify the questionable $1.7 million deal any different from the claims he used to expand charter schools, to shift tax dollars to private schools through voucher payments, to strip collective bargaining rights for teachers or require third-graders to pass a standardized reading test before moving on to fourth grade?

Aside from his former chief of staff’s job with Cisco, Bennett’s ties to corporate interests have become increasingly clear. A nonprofit group in January released thousands of emails revealing the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s efforts in working with state officials, including Bennett, in writing education laws to benefit the foundation’s corporate supporters. The foundation, started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has received financial support from for-profit companies like McGraw Hill, Pearson and K12 and the nonprofit College Board, Huston’s current employer.

The complex web of ties between corporate influences, Bennett’s administration and the raft of legislation should give lawmakers every reason to halt the continuing tide of education bills, including several sponsored by Huston. Demanding research-based evidence of the effectiveness of laws already passed and simply giving schools time to implement and evaluate them could save legislators some embarrassment later.