July has not been kind to Florida's education establishment. First, the state Board of Education spent the last three weeks going to war with its district superintendents over the endless dickering with the formula that assigns letter grades to schools based on student achievement data. Then comes news that despite improved student performance on the state's standardized tests, the number of schools that will earn a failing "F" grade will spike this year.
And now Florida's newest hire – and a great believer in accountability – Education Commissioner Tony Bennett was found to have changed the grade of a charter school run by a political donor when he was still the state superintendent in Indiana.
Although Bennett lost his reelection bid to Democrat Glenda Ritz last year, his national reputation as a tough reformer who believes that school results should speak for themselves landed him the job of Florida's Education Commissioner after he relinquished his Indiana post in January. Since taking over, he has been working to adopt the A-F rating system he created in Indiana for Florida schools.
However, according to Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press, the system that was supposed to present an objective view of school performance was was frantically overhauled when Christel House, a charter school run by Christel DeHaan, was initially assigned a grade of C due to low algebra scores.
Associated Press examined emails between Bennett and other district officials as they "scrambled" to alter the system to make sure that DeHaan's school earned an A instead.
"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.
The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the 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 homebuyers elsewhere.
Bennett has denied that changing the grade of Christel House was the reason that the system was changed. Instead, he explained, when he first saw the Christel House grade was so low, it was clear that the system was not working as it should have been. As a result of the last-minute alteration, more than 10 schools received different grades in addition to Christel House.
But the emails do show a certain preoccupation with this particular school – although other schools were beneficiaries, their initial grades were not what raised concerns among Bennett's staff.
Though Indiana had had a school ranking system since 1999, Bennett switched to the A-F system and made it a signature item of his education agenda, raising the stakes for schools statewide.
Bennett consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he secured support for the measure from business groups and lawmakers, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long. But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to Neal.
It's hard to determine today what AP's revelations will do to Bennett's legacy and his Florida future, but at least to one person who has often stood with Bennett in his efforts to shake up the Indiana education establishment, the fallout will be dire. According to Matthew Tully writing for the Indiana Star, the controversy is an indication of a tragic flaw in Bennett's character – his inability to back away from any fight and admit his wrongs.
His bold ways gave him strength, as many people were inspired by his blunt words and his barnstorming style, but it also left him vulnerable because, as we know, most complicated issues reside in the gray areas.
Now that the AP story is out, I certainly hope none of my fellow supporters of education reform try to dismiss and defend Bennett's words and actions. I stand by my support of his policies, and his belief in charters and high standards. But his words and actions in this case are at best troublesome, disheartening and far beneath the office he held.
However, Tully disputes that Bennett acted the way he did because he was trying to protect a valuable source of campaign cash; Tully says that Bennett simply couldn't stand the fact that he could have been wrong either about the new accountability system or Christel House. Tully points out that concerns about Bennett's reputation dominate the emails. DeHaan's cash and influence were important, no doubt, but not as important as avoiding political heat he would have no doubt have taken once the school's unimpressive grade became public.
There are lessons to be learned here, Tully writes, for Bennett and for Florida. Christel House's low algebra grades are not proof that the entire approach is faulty. Instead, Bennett should have – and had – more faith.
Bennett, now a top education leader in Florida, should have trusted and not manipulated his department's data. If there was a problem with the underlying grading system, he should have more openly discussed it. He should have understood that a disappointing grade for a school he loved was, at its core, an incentive to work harder. He should have been honest with the people he served.
Meanwhile, Florida's difficult month closes as calls for Bennett's resignation have already begun.