The Society of Professional Journalists annually hands out what it calls the Black Hole Award for an action that goes above and beyond in violating state or federal open-government laws and the public’s right to know.

And wouldn’t you know it, this year, two of the three winners are connected to education. Why not? So much has been by so many government officials in the last year that purport to do one thing in the world of school reform but actually do the opposite that it wouldn’t have been a surprise if all three winners related to education!

One of this year’s awards went to the Georgia Legislature for its 2008 law and 2011 amendments to that law providing tax credits for private schools. Here are the details, according to a society press release:

“A 2008 Georgia law introducing the Qualified Education Income Tax Credit enabled taxpayers to divert over $125 million so far from the state treasury. The law allows for tax credits to support scholarships at private schools without tracking which schools or students get funding or disclosing publicly anything about how the state money is spent by private organizations. Now, after the amendments in 2011, the law makes it a criminal offense to disclose virtually any meaningful information about the program to the public. Georgia’s law fails to hold anyone accountable for how they divert or spend tax funds. It does not track who is receiving scholarships under the program.”

Another Black Hole Award went to the Wisconsin Legislature, which famously went along with Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip teachers and other public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, sparking massive protests that closed schools and led Democratic legislators to flee the state to boycott a vote on the legislation. Part of the reason the award went to the legislature involves how it passed that legislation, according to the society’s release:

“The Wisconsin State Legislature ignored the state’s open meetings law in hastily passing a collective bargaining bill in March 2011, then successfully urged the state supreme court to exempt it from this law.

“Additionally, tasked with redrawing voter boundaries based on the 2010 Census, the legislature’s Republican leadership hammered out new maps behind closed doors, even having their members sign secrecy agreements. The maps were unveiled less than a week before the only public hearing on the bills, which promptly passed. Afterward, the leaders fought court orders to release records showing what they had done, drawing an uncommonly sharp rebuke from a federal judge.

“The Wisconsin legislature also passed a law barring even police from knowing who may be carrying concealed weapons. And while opening the state capitol to these weapons, it cracked down on the use of cameras by citizens in the state assembly.”

For the record, the third Black Hole Award this year went to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services for trying to block efforts of the media to find out what happened to a girl who was murdered by a member of her adoptive family.

The criteria for the winners includes the level of egregiousness of the violation, meaning that the perpetrators have to actually know what they are doing but they do it anyway for personal or political interests.

In 2011, the Black Hole Award went to the Utah Legislature and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for legislation, later repealed, that essentially destroyed the state’s open records law.


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