TALLAHASSEE -- Nationally celebrated education reformer Tony Bennett was wooed to Florida in January to bring stability to the state education department.
But barely eight months later, his tenure as education commissioner could be in trouble.
Scathing emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett, while serving as education commissioner in Indiana last year, intervened to raise the grade for a charter school run by an influential Republican donor. Bennett was already under fire in Florida, where influential superintendents and state Board of Education members have raised questions about the validity of school grades.
Gov. Rick Scott has been silent on the scandal engulfing his education commissioner. He declined two opportunities to speak publicly on the matter Tuesday, saying he had not read the AP report.
Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers later said Bennett was “clearly committed to making Florida’s education system the best in the nation.”
But with the 2014 governor’s race on the horizon, observers say Scott has a tough decision to make.
“If the governor wants to appeal to moderates across the state, he has to get rid of [Bennett],” said Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and editor of the Miami Education Review online newsletter. “If he doesn’t, the message is that the game is rigged, and that public schools are going to be treated from charter schools.”
On Tuesday, Bennett said he had received “really pretty strong support” from Scott’s office and several lawmakers, as well as members of the state Board of Education. The seven-person board has the power to hire and fire education commissioners, but its members are appointed by the governor.
Bennett said the AP report would not impair his ability to serve as Florida’s top education official.
“It has no bearing whatsoever,” he said.
According to the report, Bennett tinkered with Indiana’s school grading system last fall to improve the grade awarded to Christel House Academy. Emails show that members of Bennett’s staff questioned whether the move was legal.
“It was never about making charter schools look good,” Bennett said Tuesday.
Instead, Bennett said he changed the grade for Christel House from a “C” to an “A” because the school was docked points for not having a graduation rate. That year, Christel House only enrolled students in kindergarten through 10th grade.
Those who came to his Bennett’s defense Tuesday included Patricia Levesque, the executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. Bush has been among Bennett’s most ardent supporters.
In a statement, Levesque called the story “a political attack” on the education commissioner.
“Commissioner Bennett and his department found and corrected a mistake that would have unfairly penalized 13 schools missing data for grades they did not even serve,” she wrote. “They fixed a problem to be accurate and fair — any accusation otherwise is false and politically motivated.”
Both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, both Republicans, praised Bennett’s record, and said any speculation would be premature.