Florida Education Head Resigns Over Charter School Grade Scandal

Tony Bennett announced his resignation as Florida's education commissioner on Thursday, plagued by a scandal that followed him from his previous position as head of education in Indiana, where he lost his re-election bid last November. Bennett's resignation came three days after he was accused of changing the grade of an Indiana charter school founded by a Republican who had donated over $130,000 to his campaign.

According to emails published by the Associated Press earlier this week, Bennett and his staff members in Indiana changed test scores to ensure that Christel House Academy, a charter school founded by Republican-donor Christel DeHaan (owner of this modest home), received an "A" rather than have the school's final grade lowered by the "C" earned by its 10th grade Algebra class. Those low grades from the recently added 9th and 10th grade classes were eventually excluded from the higher scores of the middle school, allowing the Christel House to keep its “A” ranking.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in an email last September to Heather Neal, his then chief-of-staff and the current chief lobbyist for Indiana Governor Mike Pence. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

The Associated Report notes that DeHaan, the school's founder, has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett.

Bennett claims that 12 or 13 schools benefitted from the changes, not just the Christel House. "It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of a school based on a political donor or trying to hide schools from accountability," Bennett said this week. "That's fictitious at best, and it's totally unfounded. We did nothing wrong. We did nothing covert. We did nothing secretive.”

But a report published in the Indianapolis Star on Thursday claimed that Bennett refused to act on a 2011 request from the Indianapolis schools superintendent to make similar changes to two charter schools with nearly identical issues as those facing the Christel House: low high school grades bringing down higher middle school grades. Both of the Indianapolis schools received failing grades and were taken over by the state.

“It’s time to call the Tony Bennett letter-grading scandal exactly what it is — cheating,” the Indiana State Teachers Association said in a statement Wednesday. “There are no excuses for the actions taken by Bennett and his staff, as revealed in the string of emails, other than favoritism, cronyism, self-interest and hubris — none of which has a place in public school policymaking.”

Before his resignation, Bennett had encouraged the Florida education board to adopt a “safety net” provision to prevent hundreds of schools from dropping more than one grade this year. The board voted 4-3 to approve Bennett's provision. However, there were still sharp drops in the number of “A” rated schools and a significant increase in the number of “F” rated ones.

"It's not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distraction," Bennett said during the news conference announcing his resignation. "I end my tenure with my head held high."

[Image via AP]

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