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Call Off This New Salem Witch Hunt

Enough already. I'm a big fan of Boston's Pioneer Institute. But Pioneer, abetted by some of Massachusetts's local papers, has gone after Massachusetts's terrific state chief Mitch Chester in a ludicrous, destructive exercise--one that should be called off ASAP. (Full disclosure: I've known Chester for a decade and advised, albeit modestly, on the state's winning Race to the Top application.)

What's the story? Boston's Channel 5 reported recently that outside groups, most notably the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Achieve, Inc., picked up the tab for Chester's business travel for conferences, meetings, and such to places including London, Washington, Chicago, and Arizona. The total price tag for the dozen trips was $15,146.80.

The background: Pioneer waged a hard-hitting campaign against Massachusetts's decision to dump its MCAS standards for the Common Core. The Massachusetts Board of Education, with Chester's encouragement, embraced the Common Core in July. CCSSO and Achieve have been aggressive leaders in the Common Core push. Now, while raising questions of inappropriate influence by CCSSO and Achieve, Pioneer is calling for the state's Inspector General and Attorney General to investigate Chester for taking these trips prior to recommending that the state adopt the Common Core standards.

"Commissioner Chester's acceptance of free travel from CCSSO and Achieve casts even more doubt on a process that already appeared as if its conclusion was inevitable," said Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios. "The public trust demands that substantive allegations like these be thoroughly investigated."

Now, as I've said before, I'm mixed on the Common Core. I see real upside, but also vast opportunities for the effort to be derailed or clumsily implemented--and, along the way, to do real damage in states that had been on their game. Massachusetts is probably example 1A of a state that was getting it right. Given all that, I've much sympathy for Pioneer's critique of the Common Core and so I've no problem with their tough-minded, substantive criticisms. And I've even got some sympathy for Pioneer's point that the appearances are irksome. But, I see a vast difference between hard-hitting disagreement and maligning an official's reputation for such flimsy cause.

This Travelgate sally feels more like a frustrated witch hunt than anything else.

First, it's not like we're talking Caribbean junkets or luxurious swings through Paris. We're talking about trips to business-first locales like Chicago and Washington, and nobody disputes that these were actual working trips.

Second, the Puritanical push to seal state officials off from interactions with vendors has probably already gone too far--and this takes the craze to a whole other level. CCSSO and Achieve aren't seeking state contracts; they're encouraging states to adopt policies. Win or lose, they don't have a lot of skin in the game. As Chester said when asked about potential conflicts, "We're very careful when third parties pay for travel that it's not a third party that wants to do business in Massachusetts."

Third, let's remember that education officials are routinely encouraged to get out and learn about programs and policies. And it's pretty clear that we'd prefer they not do this on the state's dime. Hell, if Chester were doing these trips with public dollars, he'd probably be getting slammed for that right now. If we want state chiefs to be informed and engaged, they need to be able to attend conferences and visit schools without having to worry about being beat up.

Moreover, this cuts both ways. Pioneer may not be crazy about Common Core-friendly travel, but Pioneer embraces school choice. And I suspect that Pioneer, like me, has never complained when choice-friendly foundations or advocacy groups have funded travel for superintendents, school board members, or state chiefs to learn about voucher programs or charter schooling. I think those trips are useful and have never thought they created an ethical morass or compromised policy. Does Pioneer really want to set a norm where a state chief ought to turn down an opportunity to visit high-performing charter schools on a trip sponsored by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools? I hope not.

Finally, I think this kind of scorched-earth attack does a whole lot of harm along the way--as it slimes a good man and encourages smart, talented people to ask "why the hell would I ever want that job?" This latest witch hunt is the kind of petty-ante kneecapping that drives decent people from public service, and I hope my friends at Pioneer will let this one go.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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