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Democrats Won't Hear Tony Bennett's Grade-Change Explanation, Call for Resignation

July 30, 2013 - 6:00pm

Despite Tony Bennett's explanation and flat denial of wrongdoing, Democrats have jumped on an opportunity to bash the commissioner of education in the wake of recent reports of a grade change which took a GOP donor-created school from a C to an A.

The original Associated Press story prompted suspicions that Bennett changed the grade out of political influence. It has spiraled into a media frenzy, and now some Democratic legislators are calling for Bennetts resignation.

Bennett fully admits to changing the charter schools grade in Indiana.

"There was not a secret about this," he said. "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."

The history of Indianas school grades is one that closely echoes Floridas, with calls for increased transparency and accountability at all levels of public education. Bennett worked closely with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to improve the system and raise student achievement, so in 2010 the Indiana Department of Education decided to take a closer look at the way school performance ratings were determined.

A work group of Indiana educators was formed to develop various models of school ratings and presented its findings to the Indiana Board of Education. The result was two models: one for elementary and middle schools and one for high schools. The new metrics were adopted and finalized in February 2012. Schools in Indiana didnt actually begin receiving letter grades akin to Floridas "A" through "F" school grading system until 2012.

By this time, Indiana had been rating school performance for nearly eight years, beginning in the 2004-2005 academic year.

But with the new grading system came new concerns: What would the effect of the formula be on Indianas charter schools? Some believed they would be negatively affected because charter schools focus heavily on improving the lowest-achieving students and not just the overall test passage rate.

But Bennett maintained his original position of equal accountability for all schools, until a flaw in the system became immediately apparent after the first run of calculations in 2012.

Christel House was the city on a hill of charter schools and had been historically high-performing. But Christel House lacked a fundamental portion of the grading rubric: the school only went from K-10 and did not have the 11th- and 12th-grade. Because of this, the school received zeros on certain factors like college acceleration or graduation rates, and its grade plummeted.

AP blamed poor algebra grades on the schools fall from an A to a C.

It was then that Bennett and the Department of Education took a closer look and decided to make adjustments. The adjustments were not special for Christel House -- 12 other schools also had similar issues which were then corrected.

The following schools also fell prey to the flaw in the system:

1. Richmond Academy

2.. Hammond Academy of Science and Tech

3. Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School

4. Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School

5. Gary Lighthouse Charter School

6. West Gary Lighthouse

7. LEAD College Prep

8. Anderson Preparatory Academy

9. Indiana Math and Science Academy

10. Indiana Connections Academy

11. International School of Columbus

12. Eman Schools.

Media reports have been fixated on the fact that Christel House is associated with Christel DeHaan, a big-time GOP donor who has funneled more than $2 million into Republican campaigns over the last 15 years. DeHaan donated $130,000 to Bennett himself.

Bennett has been particularly candid about the grade change, saying it was not done in secret, nor was the change special treatment as a result of political influence from DeHaan.

"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. "That's fictitious at best and it's totally unfounded."

AP alleges Christel House was the catalyst to the grade change, which affected other charter schools as well. The other schools whose grades were changed do not appear to be closely associated with any other high-profile GOP donors.

Democrats, however, remained unconvinced of Bennetts defense and leapt at the opportunity to bash the commissioner, calling for his immediate resignation.

"In light of the recent reports from the Associated Press and other news outlets on Department of Education chief Tony Bennetts grade-changing activities in Indiana, I find it necessary to call on you to request his immediate resignation as Floridas commissioner of education," wrote Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott. Certainly, big money is also no stranger to education in Florida and I fear what appears to have happened in Indiana may repeat itself here, should Commissioner Bennett be allowed to remain at the helm."

"We need someone whose credibility is not in question," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. "The credibility of Florida's grading system is in shreds. Floridians need to know that that game is no different here for charter schools, and that's what worries me."

But the calls for Bennetts resignation were not universal -- even some Democrats remained skeptical.

"He has been responsive to the concerns of superintendents in Florida. Most superintendents have appreciated his approach," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, when speaking about Bennett.

Gov. Rick Scott lauded the commissioners accomplishments, saying Bennett is doing a great job and praised him for his focus on accountability in schools throughout the state.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant slammed Bennett and called Floridas grades a result of political manipulation, alluding to the recent extension of the safety net for Floridas schools that would prevent them from dropping more than one letter grade.

Other prominent organizations say thats not so. Deputy Communications Director Allison Aubuchon of the Foundation for Florida's Future told Sunshine State News that the grading corrections in Indiana and the Florida State Board of Educations recent decisions to implement a safety net to protect school grades were two different ball games.

Comparing the Indiana Department of Educations 2012 school grading corrections and the Florida State Board of Educations recent decision to extend the safety net that prevents a school from dropping more than one letter grade in a year is like comparing apples to oranges, wrote Aubuchon. These were very different circumstances.

Political attacks will come and go, wrote Patricia Levesque, executive director for the Foundation. The focus must remain on ensuring every student has access to a high-quality education that prepares them for success."

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at

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