by Colleen Flaherty/Photo of Tony Bennett by Jeff Peterson
Update: Tony Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida education commissioner.
“These so-called reforms have tripped up another commissioner of education,” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford in a statement. “It’s past time that we include teachers, parents and administrators in developing solutions, not just listen to the ‘reformers’ who have an approach that has been a disaster for public education in Florida.”
Former Indiana schools superintendent Tony Bennett — a so-called education reformer and part of a national movement to undermine public education by propping up for-profit schools paid for with tax-payer money — rose to prominence by promising to hold schools accountable.
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Of course, he didn’t mean schools run by his friends.
Earlier this week, The Associated Press uncovered emails between the former superintendent and his staff that shows he intentionally manipulated a particular charter school’s rating to further his agenda. Bennett — who introduced his trademark “A-F” school grading in Indiana based on high-stakes testing — was informed last fall that an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor would receive a poor grade.
“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.
The school in question was Christel House Academy, run by influential donor Christel DeHaan. DeHaan has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in another e-mail to Neal.
In response to the AP story, Bennett has denied giving Christel House any special treatment. “This wasn’t just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid,” said Bennett.
However, the emails show that Bennett was focused specifically on Christel House. Bennett had previously cited Christel House as a top-performing school and a prime example why the state should expand its voucher program, and he felt issuing the school a low grade would undermine his efforts.
After it was unveiled that Christel would receive a C due to poor algebra test scores, Bennett and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education scrambled to lift the grade.
“I am more than a little miffed about this,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 13 email. “I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.”
While it’s unclear how the grade was changed, Christel’s mark changed twice. When it was first raised to an almost-A rating, then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to legally change the cutoff for an A.
Bennett responded: “We can revise the rule.”
The next week, Christel House received its A.
Currently, Bennett is serving as the state education commissioner in Florida. Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s assurance that Bennett is doing “a great job,” legislators are calling for his resignation.
“We need someone whose credibility is not in question,” said Florida Rep. Janet Cruz. “The credibility of Florida’s grading system is in shreds. Floridians need to know that that game is not different here for charter schools, and that’s what worries me.”
Glenda Ritz — who defeated Bennett in last year’s superintendent race in Indiana thanks to overwhelming educator support — started looking into the state’s grading system in June this year after hearing that grades were delayed multiple times last year.
“I heard concerns from Hoosier educators about problems with the state’s grading system,” said Ritz in a statement Tuesday. “In my first public testimony as superintendent, I spoke about the problems in our accountability system. Yesterday’s report by the Associated Press demonstrates the seriousness of these problems.”
“I am committed to strengthening our school accountability system. However, accountability only works when the people making decisions are both fair and transparent.”