In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Education chief Tony Bennett’s excuses don’t make the grade

Grown-ups might not buy Tony Bennett’s tortured explanation for jacking up that C grade to an A, but every school child in Florida understands the rationale.

Sometimes a middling C, as Tony told his underlings back in Indiana on Sept. 12, 2012, can be a “HUGE problem for us.”

Us too, say the kids.

The HUGE problem to which Tony was referring was the C grade scored by an Indianapolis charter school. At the time, Bennett was still Indiana state superintendent of education. (Two months later, voters would knock him out of office. Gov. Rick Scott, with his penchant for losers, hired Bennett to be his education commissioner in Florida.)

This was not just any charter school, as Bennett made clear in a cache of emails uncovered this week by the Associated Press in Indiana. This was Christel House, namesake of school founder and very generous Republican donor Christel DeHaan.

“Oh, crap,” his despondent assistant superintendent told Bennett. “We cannot release until this is resolved.”

The emails reveal Bennett and his staff working frantically over the next nine days, while his office delayed the statewide release of all the A-F school grades, to find some way to jack up Christel House’s grade. The word “loophole” pops up at least four times in the exchanges.

Bennett denies that his office’s panicked reaction to Christel House’s C had anything to do with the $2.8 million that DeHaan has donated to the Indiana Republican Party since 1988. Or, more specifically, the $130,000 she had donated to his own election campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Bennett had cited the virtues of Christel House as he went around the Indiana trying to rally support for his plan to channel public school kids into charter schools. He had described Christel House as an A school to legislators, state business leaders and, according to the email, to the DeHaan herself.

“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.”

In Indiana, as in Florida since, Bennett has been a big champion of Common Core standards and rigid school ratings. Not always so rigid, as it turned out.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability,” he told his chief of staff.

Initially, Christel House had a math problem. As one of Bennett’s staffers explained, the charter school’s 10th graders had a “terrible” record on their standard algebra test. Only 33 percent of the students passed. That was the “principal factor in earning the C grade.”

The staffers discussed a fix. They managed to Christel House up to a B and then thought about messing with the color charts to make a high B look like an A. Then, somehow, they found another way, never quite explained in the emails.

Bennett said this week that the grade charges had nothing in particular to do with the Christel House, or special influence. He insisted that he had only fixed a glitch in the grading system that unfairly affected a number of schools back in Indiana. “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

His explanation — that he was only trying to bring fairness to the grading system — doesn’t quite match up with his emails. But, if fairness was his true motivation, educators from a number of tough, inner city schools in South Florida, charged with educating poor immigrant kids with profound language disadvantages, have similarly argued that the rigid statewide FCAT rules come up with unfair results.

But somewhere between Indianapolis and Tallahassee, Bennett seems to have lost his urgent and noble determination to fix those grading disparities.

For consistency, the commissioner grades out at a D. Of course, if we round up a bit, and shade the color charter just so, it might look like a C.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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