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.
A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
Bennett reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that DeHaan’s school received special treatment.
He said the discovery that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other “combined” schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.
“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.’ ”
However, the emails clearly show Bennett’s staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to Indiana legislative leaders.
Other schools saw their grades change, but the emails show DeHaan’s charter was the catalyst for any changes.
Bennett rocketed to prominence with the help of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors, such as DeHaan.
Bennett is a co-founder of Bush’s Chiefs for Change, a group consisting mostly of Republican state school superintendents pushing school vouchers, teacher merit pay and many other policies introduced by Bennett in Indiana.
Bush could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
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 Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.
But trouble loomed when Indiana’s then-grading director, Jon Gubera, 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, the chief of staff.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”
DeHaan, who opened the Christel House Academy charter school in Indianapolis in 2002 and has since opened schools in India, Mexico and South Africa, said in a statement Monday that no one from the school ever made any requests that would affect Christel House’s grades.
Current Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz’s office declined to comment on the emails.
Ritz, a Democrat, defeated Bennett in November with a grass-roots campaign driven by teachers angered by Bennett’s education agenda.
Bennett said Monday he felt no special pressure to deliver an A for DeHaan. Instead, he argued, if he had paid more attention to politics he would have won reelection in Indiana.
Yet Bennett wrote to staff twice in four days, directly inquiring about DeHaan’s status. Gubera broke the news after the second note that “terrible” 10th grade algebra results had “dragged down their entire school.”
Bennett called the situation “very frustrating and disappointing” in an email that day.
“I am more than a little miffed about this,” Bennett wrote. “I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.”
Bennett said Monday that the email expressed his frustration at having promised that top-performing schools like DeHaan’s would be recognized in the grading system, but coming away with a flawed formula that would undo his promises.
Gubera declined to comment Monday.
The emails do not detail what Gubera changed in the school formula or how many schools were affected. Indiana education experts consulted for this article said they were not aware that the formula had been changed.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report, as did Tampa Bay Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick and Jeffrey S. Solochek.