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Commentary: Andrew Steele: Real education issues aren’t in the email

Updated: September 17, 2013 2:03PM



I remember reading about George W. Bush’s decision not to use email while he was president. He was afraid that some congressional investigation would lead to a subpoena of emails.

He preferred not to have those written records than to accept the risk of their exposure in a political context. There are, though, millions and millions of emails from, to and among various members his administration, and one would think those would provide more fodder for political opponents, consipiracy theorists, and, eventually, historians.

Bush’s aide Mitch Daniels didn’t have similar concerns when he became governor of Indiana, obviously, and the Associated Press has had fun with public information requests that have exposed a variety of emails.

But Daniels’s record, thus far at least, suggests that the good stuff is indeed happening at lower levels. The flap over the former governor’s preference in history books was inconsequential.

The record at the Department of Education is more meaningful. It’s not so much about former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett did for, or to, public schools. However much people want to demonize him, none of the big decisions were really his.

Even the A-through-F school grading program, over which the DOE had administrative control, was an “emperor has no clothes” situation. Sometimes people are so involved in something that they see it the way they’re supposed to see it, rather than for what it really is.

The more important issue is the way leadership of the DOE is determined. Why in the world is political fundraising and campaigning under investigation, again as a result of emails, in that department during Bennett’s tenure? It’s entirely possible he did nothing wrong, but why is that even a possibility?

And, when voters wanted to register discomfort with the pace of change, why was there the option to do so by voting Bennett out of office? We like to think that voting for officeholders is the end-all and be-all of public control, but sometimes it’s an artificial relief valve.

The satisfaction people take in voting what’s essentially a cabinet officer out of office, or in his being embroiled in scandals over a silly evaluation system or political campaigning, has nothing to do with what they’re really upset about.

The email hunting is entertaining and important in many ways, but nothing we’ve seen changes anything, on any side of the education debate. The fact is a “Deparment of Education,” on whatever level, ultimately only has impact on the margins. The real issues are far deeper and broader than that deparment’s purview.



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