Former Indiana public schools superintendent feels the heat of Hoosier grading scandal

August 1, 2013

Michael Puente

(State of Indiana)
Former Indiana Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett

The former head of Indiana’s public schools faces allegations of favoring a charter school backed by a major donor.

As a result, Tony Bennett announced today during a conference call that he’s resigning from his current post as Florida’s education superintendent.

“The decision to resign is mine and mine only,” Bennett said this morning from Tallahassee, Florida. “It’s not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distraction.”

During his tenure as Indiana Superintendent for Public Instruction, Tony Bennett pushed a system of grading public and charter schools.
Failing schools were subject to state takeover, including Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana.

But those moves and others may have led to Bennett’s failure to win reelection to that post last fall. The Republican lost to Democrat Glenda Ritz.
Soon after, Bennett was hired as Florida’s education commissioner at a salary of $275,000. 

But today, he resigned over reports from the Associated Press that he changed the grade of Christel House Academy charter school in Indianapolis from a C to an A.

The school was backed by Christel DeHaan, a major Republican donor.

In a conference call this morning, Bennett said the reports are false, but also distracting.

That’s why he’s quitting despite Florida Governor Rick Scott’s request that he stay on.

Bennett says he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Indiana Governor Mike Pence urged the Indiana Department of Education to complete a thorough review of the questions surrounding the 2011-2012 A-F letter grades. He wants the Department to report its findings at the next State Board of Education meeting in August.

“Governor Pence believes in accountability and that students, parents and teachers deserve to know our state has a fair and impartial grading system that accurately describes the performances of our schools,” said Kara Brooks, Press Secretary. “The Governor supports our A-F grading system and believes that the people of Indiana should have confidence in the integrity of that system. … The Governor believes we will be able to make an informed decision about how we might best ensure public confidence in our A-F grading system going forward.”

The American Federation of Teachers released a statement calling for Indiana to suspend its A-F school grading system.

Indiana uses A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive. A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive home buyers elsewhere.

After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he fired off an email last Sept. 12 to his chief of staff.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House comprises all of our accountability work."

Bennett, who had been reworking Florida's grading system as the state's education commissioner, denied that DeHaan's Christel House Academy school received special treatment. He said earlier this week that discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.

But even before this scandal, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said there were questions regarding how the Indiana Department of Education arrived to a final grade.

House Bill 1427 was passed to require the DOE to evaluate the fairness of the system.

“We already had some concerns about it just in how you balance growth, improvement and raw scores,” Bosma told WBEZ today. “We’re committed to having the system but it just has to be the right system.”

Bosma said the the rise in Christel House’s grade may have brought attention to the overall grading system itself.

“I’m less convinced that specific changes were made for a single school and more inclined to believe that school’s score gave rise to the realization that there was a flaw in the entire system,” Bosma said.

Bosma also said the school in question, Christel House Academy were educating 9th and 10th grade students. However, the school-grading metric system gave them a zeros for grades 11th and 12th as if it had those grades.

“That was my understanding at the time,” Bosma said. “It’s something more than that, of course, we’d like to get to the bottom of that and see what the real story is.”

The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida's grading system.

Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.

That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.

Bennett’s resignation forced the Florida State Board of Education to hold an emergency meeting Friday. Board members are expected to name Pam Stewart as an interim commissioner. Stewart, who is currently chancellor for the division of public schools, served as interim commissioner before Bennett was hired.

Stewart would take the helm at a critical time. Bennett was poised to decide whether Florida should remain with a national consortium or develop its own set of tests for new common core standards that are scheduled to take effect. Florida's Republican legislative leaders want the state to develop its own assessments.

Bennett's decision to resign came even though he had gotten support from board members after the initial reports from Indiana came out.
"I regret that Commissioner Bennett feels he must resign, but I respect his decision," said John Padget, a state board member from Key West. "He has spent countless hours focused on what's best for Florida's children, and I'll miss him."

Follow WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.