TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s education commissioner resigned Thursday following revelations that he altered the school grading formula in his former state of Indiana to benefit a charter school.
Tony Bennett, the former Indiana state superintendent of public instruction, had directed staff to reconsider a new system after Christel House Academy in Indianapolis, operated by a donor to his campaign, dropped from an A to a C. The Florida Board of Education hired Bennett in December after he lost his re-election bid in Indiana.
“We can put this issue to rest, said Bennett, who also said he would ask Indiana’s inspector general to investigate his actions. “I am fearless about what they will find.”
Bennett said the decision to resign was his own, but he wanted to help Florida avoid “distractions” as it prepares to put new education standards and grading systems in place at every level.
In Indiana, Bennett’s staff changed the grade for Christel House and 12 other schools after Bennett’s lieutenants reinterpreted a rule for calculating the grades of schools that combine elementary, middle and high school. Bennett insisted in e-mails that Christel House must receive an A.
In the end, it did.
“What we did in Indiana was very simple,” Bennett said. “We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools to have their grade truly reflect their performance because they were unfairly penalized for kids they didn’t have in their school. That wasn’t rigging anything. I believe we did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children.”
Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-financed vouchers to attend private school need to spend a year first in public school. They also help determine how much state money schools receive. A low grade can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote to his chief of staff Sept. 12 about a likely low grade for donor Christel DeHaan’s school. “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.”
Bennett acknowledged that he when he wrote the e-mails he did not think about the possibility that they could become public, even though public records law can require disclosure of most correspondence.
Bennett has been the third education commissioner in Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s three years in office. Florida also has had two interim education commissioners during that time.
Spokesman Joe Follick of the Florida Board of Education said the board will have an emergency meeting Friday via conference call to discuss an interim appointment.
Bennett said he recommends Pam Stewart, the state’s K-12 chancellor who served as interim commissioner before he took the helm.
Scott Elliott reports for The Indianapolis Star; Travis Pillow reports for the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat. Contributing: The Associated Press
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