From the Statehouse

Tony Bennett guilty of ethics charge for campaign work

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

Former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett was found guilty of violating an ethics law by a state panel today and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement.

Bennett and his Indiana Department of Education employees spent his work time and used office computers and telephones for the campaign, Inspector General David Thomas found. Last September, the Associated Press reported it had obtained documents through public records requests that showed two Republican donor lists were stored on education department office computers and that he and his staff discussed 2012 campaign details via email. Bennett’s calendar also listed what appeared to be campaign phone call appointments.

Those allegations grew out of a larger accusation: that Bennett had intentionally manipulated the state’s A to F grading system to benefit a wealthy ally who had contributed to his political campaign in the past. On that score, the Indiana Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing when it adopted Thomas’ report.

Afterward, Bennett’s lawyer declared the nearly year-long ordeal over, describing his client’s actions as an easily correctable oversight but a violation nonetheless.

“While there were violations, not every violation of the rule is serious,” attorney Larry Mackey said. “Dr. Bennett, as a political officeholder, had every right to engage in political activity unlike state employees. But he has to follow the rules and the rules are, write a policy. He did not write that policy. If he had written that policy we would not be here right now and there would not be any violations.”

But when it came to A to F grades, Thomas’s report relied almost entirely on a report commissioned by the Indiana legislature that last fall said the grade change raising Christel House charter school from a C to an A was “plausible.”

Written by John Grew and William Sheldrake of the Indiana-based company Policy Analytics, the legislative report found that the questions raised about Christel House led education department staff to discover a programming error that depressed grades for 165 schools and to reconsider the interpretation for how to grade about a dozen schools with unusual grade configurations. The change affected all those schools, not just Christel House.

But that report stopped short of examining the motivations of Bennett and his staff with regard to Christel House. The authors did not address why email conversations in September 2012 focused so heavily on Christel House or explore the wide range of options proposed to raise its grade before it was discovered that the technical correction and rule interpretation change raised the school to an A.

“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” Grew and Sheldrake wrote.

Bennett was not at the hearing today, Mackey said, because he was on a family vacation. Mackey said the end of the ethics investigation should close the case entirely.

He pointed out that Bennett was among those who called for the ethics investigation that ended with today’s fine.

“He didn’t like the answer, to some extent, but he accepted it,” Mackey said.

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.

And then there was one

This year’s list of school voucher bills just got shorter in Tennessee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Dolores Gresham (right) chairs the Senate Education Committee. On Wednesday, she tabled a $71 million voucher-like proposal for consideration next year.

Tennessee lawmakers advocating for vouchers and similar school-choice programs are now rallying behind a single bill.

One tuition voucher bill died Wednesday in committee due to a lack of votes, while a more expansive voucher-like measure was tabled until next year. And the sponsor of a third bill, which would expand another voucher-like program for special education students, pulled that proposal from consideration as well.

After the flurry of action in the Senate Education Committee, voucher advocates only have a proposed pilot program in Memphis to focus on, and that bill appears to have momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the measure passed a House education committee on Tuesday, and heads next to the House Government and Operations and Senate Finance committees.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

The voucher bill that stalled Wednesday was similar to one that almost became law last year. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the proposal would have impacted students in districts with “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, which includes Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson. It garnered only four of the five votes needed to pass, with four senators electing to pass, and one voting no.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dolores Gresham announced that she was tabling until next year her voucher-like proposal that could shift up to $71 million annually in public dollars toward private education services.

Gresham, a Republican from Somerville who chairs the panel, said she wants to flesh out her proposal based on what other states, including Nevada and Arkansas, are doing to fund their massive school-choice programs.  

“I need some time to look at what they’re doing, because that might be very helpful in the future for us to fund empowerment scholarships,” she said. “I’m very excited about what I see happening across the country.”

Gresham added that momentum is building at the national level, too, now that Betsy DeVos is U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, has made a career of advocating to give parents more flexibility on how to spend public education funding.

“I’m excited to see what the new secretary might bring to the table,” she said.

Gresham’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville, would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping.

All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.

The state’s new voucher-like program for special education students was created by the legislature last year, and Kelsey was seeking this year to expand it. But the bill faced opposition due to the potential cost to public schools, and he took it off notice on Wednesday.