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John Krull commentary: Todd Huston and the high cost of education

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, just taught Hoosiers a valuable lesson.

Well, “costly” might be a more accurate word than “valuable.”

He showed us just how much money there is to be made in the education-reform racket.

A few days ago, Huston resigned his position as senior vice president for the College Board. The College Board, among other things, designs the Scholastic Aptitude Test—SAT—and Advanced Placement courses for schools.

When he quit, Huston left behind an annual salary of at least $460,738. Given that he’s worked there for nine years, he’s made a significant fortune.

Education is not normally a path to wealth.

Both Huston and the College Board insist that his resignation had nothing to do with the speaker’s championing of House Bill 1134. Both sides said Huston departed so he could spend more time on focusing on his legislative leadership responsibilities.

They said this even though Huston took the unusual step of voting for HB 1134. Normally, House speakers only vote on measures if the balloting is close or—as likely was the case here—because they want to send a message that the measure in question is a leadership priority.

HB 1134 has become a focal point of national controversy and derision. That’s because the bill does its best to prevent Indiana students from learning anything that might involve actual learning.

It limits instruction on “divisive” topics such as America’s tortured history regarding race. It hamstrings teachers by establishing onerous parent-approval processes. And, because what is considered “divisive” is so vaguely defined, it seeks to chill free speech.

In many ways, HB 1134 isn’t just anti-education.

It’s un-American.

But the varied and serious shortcomings and transgressions of HB 1134 aren’t the lesson Huston taught Hoosiers with this episode.

No, the speaker’s bit of instruction demonstrated just how structurally corrupt the education reform movement has become.

Over a two-year period, Indiana’s state government with the general fund alone will spend more than $35 billion. More than half of that spending is devoted to education.

With that much money involved, it was only a matter of time before some people decided they were entitled to larger and larger slices of the pie. The only ones who rarely seem to get a piece are the ones doing the work.

The teachers.

The education reform movement started with a basic argument. They contended that introducing competition—making education more of a free market—would enhance innovation in classrooms and improve student achievement.

That gave rise to an abundance of charter schools and the most extensive—and expensive—school voucher program in the United States.

But a curious thing happened.

The oft-promised improvements in student performance never materialized.

A well-entrenched and well-funded network of education-reform support enterprises, though, took root, all of them drawing sustenance from the fertile soil of taxpayer funding. Some of them were outright for-profit operations. Others were not-for-profits heavily staffed by people drawing hefty salaries.

Some as high as $460,738 per year.

Some even higher.

As these education reform entities planted themselves ever more deeply in the state’s budgeting, they began to realize that hiring or arriving at other financial relationships with state legislators was a wise investment.

Indiana’s legislature always has been vulnerable to such arrangements. Because it is a part-time citizen legislature, every lawmaker without substantial personal wealth must have a job—and a job that allows her or him to be away from work for several months every year.

The thinking behind making legislative work part-time was that doing so would force lawmakers to stay rooted in their communities.

In reality, it created massive opportunities for companies that either do business with the state or are regulated by the state to strengthen their positions by securing the services of lawmakers to perform often vaguely sketched-out duties. Indiana history is littered with legislators who worked in their “private” lives as vaguely defined “counsel” or in some other foggy capacity for one well-padded company or nonprofit or another.

If a teacher did anything like this—secured employment that conflicted in any way with serving students—the outcry would be immediate and immense.

But when a lawmaker—even a legislative leader such as Todd Huston—does it?

Well, that’s just another day at the office.

A well-paid day.

In fact, a very well-paid day.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.