INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable.
But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s mark.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an A, despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a C.
“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.
Bennett told the Herald/Times on Monday that Christel House was among the top-performing charter schools in Indiana. If it hadn’t earned an A that meant something was wrong with the entire grading system, he said.
“It had nothing to do with politics,” he said.
Bennett said that Indiana was in the midst of finalizing its school grading formula when the email exchange took place. He said he had hoped to use high-performing schools like Christel House to calibrate the system.
“We needed to make sure the school grades reflected how the schools really performed,” he said.
The Associated Press story comes at a difficult time for Bennett, now Florida’s education commissioner, who recently came under fire for revising the state’s school grading formula.
Superintendents complained that the new formula would cause school grades to sink, despite gains in student achievement.
Bennett ultimately recommended a “safety-net” provision that prevented any Florida school from dipping more than one letter grade.
Elementary and middle school grades, which were released Friday, showed an increase in the number of Ds and Fs, even with the padding.
Despite their support for the safety net, some school leaders and union officials said the credibility of the entire grading system already had been undermined.
Florida Democrats weighed in Monday, saying the latest development cast doubt on Bennett.
“How can we trust Florida’s school grades — already the product of political manipulation — with Tony Bennett in charge?” Florida Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant said.
But state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he saw no parallel between the situation in Indiana and what had happened with the school grades in Florida.
Montford pointed out that Bennett recommended changes at the request of superintendents — not charter school operators or political donors.
“I can’t tell you what happened in Indiana, but I can tell you what’s happening here in Florida,” Montford said. “[Bennett] has been responsive to superintendents’ concerns.”
The Florida Department of Education declined to comment on the Associated Press story.
The Indiana emails show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just the grade of DeHaan’s school.
Like Florida, Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.