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Gary Varvel

Daniels shows his true school colors


Mitch Daniels’ apparent disregard for academic freedom becomes more alarming in light of his new post as president of Purdue University. But the former governor’s efforts to stifle a critic stand out as the more disturbing – and instructive – disclosure from an Associated Press investigation.

Disturbing because it stands contrary to the right to criticize our government; instructive because it reveals the contempt the administration held for those who dared speak in support of public education.

Chuck Little is an educator – a former teacher, principal and superintendent at schools in upstate New York and in Michigan. He’s been a professor of educational leadership at IUPUI since 1999 and also serves as executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, the group that speaks for the largest school districts in the state, including Fort Wayne Community Schools.

In that role, Little has testified before countless legislative committee hearings, urging lawmakers to consider policy effects on schools serving the highest numbers of refugee and immigrant students and of students from poverty.

Two years ago, Little criticized a Republican budget proposal that included tax credits for private school scholarships, funding cuts for schools serving children from low-income families, and flat-line funding for full-day kindergarten and students learning English as a second language.

It was too much for Todd Huston, then chief of staff for Tony Bennett, then state superintendent. (Huston is now a GOP legislator on the House education committee.)

“This is from a group that is getting a mountain of stimulus money and their only comments about the Senate budget is how bad it is for them,” he writes in an email sent to Bennett, the governor, Daniels’ deputy chief of staff and state budget officials Christopher Ruhl and Ryan Kitchell. “What we should really look at is how much public money these schools are spending on lobbying efforts.”

The governor jumped at Huston’s suggestion.

“These are also the people we allowed to be added to Wilson Fellows so there wd be an ‘urban’ univ involved,” Daniels fired back seven minutes later. “Let’s examine cutting them out, at least of the ‘surge’ we are planning for next couple yrs. Who can assemble the very necessary data on lobbying expenses? CHE,? OMB? D of Ed? Let’s see it!!!”

The governor’s reference to the fellowship program supporting teachers in science, technology and math illustrates the us-versus-them mentality which gripped his inner education circle. Little said he wasn’t involved in any discussions involving IUPUI or the Wilson Fellows program.

“Here’s how it’s tied to me,” he said in an interview. “I’ve testified many, many times – dozens, if not hundreds – about how capitalism is trumping democracy at the expense of families. We have to better balance that. …

“I believe that’s what set them off. They believe everything should be privatized, but I’ve been saying (privatization is a problem) for years and years.”

Little said he was curious why his small association had been audited by the state in both 2005 and 2007 (with no problems found). Now he suspects the administration was looking for a way to embarrass him.

“I can’t ignore the fact that we had those audits,” he said. “I’m surprised a government official would set in motion ways to put pressure on legitimate discourse.”

The website for the Indiana State Board of Accounts doesn’t show an audit report for the association. The agency did not respond to an inquiry about IUSA as of late Thursday afternoon.

Little said the scrutiny didn’t dissuade him from speaking out. Not everyone questioning the push for vouchers, A-F school grades, teacher evaluations and more enjoyed the relative independence of IUSA. Debate was, however, clearly muted as Indiana adopted the most far-reaching changes in education of any state – little of it research-based and some of it destructive.

Daniels has left office, but many of the others in his inner circle continue to hold sway over Indiana education policy. Their eagerness to stifle criticism and debate should be noted and considered with their every proposal, vote or decision.