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.