Gov. Mike Pence is treading carefully around the bombshell disclosure of emails describing former state Superintendent Tony Bennett's push to turn a GOP donor's charter school from a mediocre performer into the star performer he claimed it was.
But try as he might, Pence can't keep himself out of this mess. Here's why:
He's an unapologetic supporter of Tony Bennett. He contributed $25,000 to the schools chief's losing campaign. He stood by Bennett even as public sentiment was clearly turning against the brash superintendent. With the notable exception of the Common Core State Standards, Pence has continued to defend Bennett's slash-and-burn approach to public education, particularly in his support for voucher expansion.
Pence is closely tied to Christel DeHaan, the generous Republican donor whose namesake charter school is at the center of the controversy. DeHaan's name surfaced just last week as one of six recipients of the Indiana Governor's Art Award, along with songwriter John Hiatt and the late actor-director Sydney Pollack. DeHaan's political contributions to Pence total at least $20,000.
Pence has taken bold steps to undermine Bennett's successor. He signaled a blatant end-run around Superintendent Glenda Ritz with a power grab by his appointed State Board of Education. The board voted 8-0 this month to authorize its chairman to work with Pence's office in hiring staff for the state board of ed. It strips control of state board funding from the Indiana Department of Education and, in turn, from Ritz. As public education advocate Vic Smith notes, control of $3 million a year in funding could make the governor's appointed board more powerful than the popularly elected state superintendent and the department she oversees.
Most important, Heather Neal is a key figure in the grade-change escapade. Now the governor's top legislative liaison, Neal was Bennett's chief of staff and wrote some of the emails just disclosed.
"Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved. I will call (Dale Chu)," Neal posts from her Kate Spade iPhone, according to the emails posted by the Associated Press. A former Indiana Public Access Counselor, she is copied on nearly all of the email correspondence involved in the exchange.
Neal, who also is former executive director of the voucher proponent group, School Choice Indiana, was generally a low-profile figure in the Department of Education. Her most public comments came in connection to an alleged breach of ISTEP+ security, when it was revealed that a test question was about a "special scholarship program" that sounded eerily similar to the voucher proposal then being debated in the General Assembly. Democratic lawmakers complained and the DOE threw a fit about leaked questions.
"I cannot emphasize how big of a deal this is for a teacher or administrator or test coordinators to be circulating a test question," Neal fumed. "It is possible we could have to invalidate tests -- about 80,000."
Interestingly, there was no suggestion from the governor's office that ISTEP+ tests should have been invalidated after test protocol and security were compromised by a massive computer-server failure this spring. The failure was on the part of CTB/McGraw Hill, the corporation selected by Bennett and his staff to administer the ISTEP+ program.
Pence might choose to leave the grade-change mess to Bennett, but it's hard to ignore its ties to his very own office.