In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Tony and Tina Bennett’s school for conflicts

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

Tony Bennett slunk away from his job as Florida commissioner of education, leaving us with an ever-deepening distrust of a school-reform movement dominated by for-profit education conglomerates and big-money political donors.

He left after just seven months on the job, muttering that he had been undone by “malicious and unfounded” news stories coming out of Indiana.

He wasn’t. He was undone by a grade-fixing scandal of his own making back when he was Indiana superintendent of education (until unhappy voters tossed him out of office in November). He lost his job in Florida because, in his previous incarnation, he manipulated the statewide grading formula to fabricate an A rating for a K-10 charter school in which two-thirds of the high school classes flunked algebra, while 30 percent failed English.

“It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of a school based on a political donor or based on trying to hide a school from accountability,” Bennett told reporters. But Bennett and his staffers left an email record last September indicating he did just that.

The education chief hanged himself with his own words and those of his staffers, who spent nine frantic days finagling the state grading formula, searching for a fix for that unacceptable C scored by Christel House Academy. Looking, as one of his staffers put it so succinctly, for that magic “loophole.” For obvious reasons. The charter school was the namesake of founder Christel DeHaan, who also happened to have donated $2.8 million to the Indiana Republican Party and, more importantly, $130,000 to the superintendent’s own political campaigns.

Bennett, an apostle of Jeb Bush’s corporate-financed school reform movement and rigid common-core testing standards, had gone around the state citing Christel House as an example of the superiority of charter schools over funky, conventional public schools. Unhappily, as Bennett’s chief accountability officer (something of a misnomer) noted, Christel’s 10th-graders had registered “terrible” scores on their statewide algebra test. Only 33 percent passed. He reacted like a high school football coach whose star player had flunked math. Something had to be done.

Ultimately, Bennett and his staffers simply erased the lowly ninth- and 10th-grade results altogether and reconfigured the results for Christel DeHaan’s school using only elementary and middle school scores. It worked swimmingly — until last week, when The Associated Press unearthed those self-incriminating emails. (Nor did it help that the Indianapolis Star reported that in 2011 the superintendent of Indianapolis’ public schools had begged Bennett to grant a similar waiver for a couple of inner-city public schools. No dice. Bennett had ignored the super’s pleas and dished out failing grades to the two no-account schools.)

By Thursday, Bennett was gone. Ousted in Florida because of his shenanigans in Indiana. The grade-fixing scandal had stripped him of the moral clout necessary to force yet another high-stakes testing regime onto Florida public schools and to peddle the notion that charter schools are the big fix for Florida’s education woes.

But Florida citizens had another reason to doubt Bennett’s objectivity when it comes to charter schools. The Indianapolis Star reported last week that his wife, Tina Bennett, was hired in June by Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. It was another of those sweet, moneyed coincidences in Bennett public service. In 2011, he had awarded this very same company nice fat contracts to take over two failing high schools and a middle school in Indianapolis. (One of those schools, T.C. Howe High School, happened to be one of those two schools that had requested but were refused the same kind of waiver granted Christel House last September. Such a small world.) And Charter Schools USA has become one of the big players in the Florida rush to charters.

The Bennetts’ conflict did nothing to alleviate the unease about the charter school movement in Florida, which may be about reform or may be about profit. A Herald investigation by reporters Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen, published in December 2011, summed up their findings in these cautionary sentences: “During the past 15 years, Florida has embarked on a dramatic shift in public education, steering billions in taxpayer dollars from traditional school districts to independently run charter schools. What started as an educational movement has turned into one of the region’s fastest-growing industries, backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians.

“But while charter schools have grown into a $400-million-a-year business in South Florida, receiving about $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled, they continue to operate with little public oversight. Even when charter schools have been caught violating state laws, school districts have few tools to demand compliance.

“Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords — one and the same, in many cases — and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.”

Speaking of potential conflicts of interest, now we have Tina and Tony.

Not that Bennett did anything during his short tenure as commissioner that would have shocked the collective conscience of the Florida lawmakers. In the spring session, education industry lobbyists pushed a bill through the Legislature to enrich private, online class providers with public money. The measure eased the vetting process for online vendors and allowed out-of-state firms to grab contracts while simultaneously cutting funding for the publicly owned, state-run, not-for-profit Florida Virtual School.

The bill passed despite a finding by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit provider of online courses, had been using teachers in courses for which they weren’t certified and then falsified class records to indicate otherwise. State law requires certification. None of that cheating stuff much mattered after K12 doled out $21,000 in campaign contributions to key Republican state legislators and a $25,000 check to the state Republican Party.

Similar questions have loomed over other instances in Florida’s fire sale of state-owned assets. The move to privatize state prisons has been so larded with corporate political donations and intense lobbying that no one can quite say whether the real goal is to bring market efficiencies to a big clunky bureaucracy or simply to deliver public money to influential corporate entities.

On Saturday, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford has failed to disclose that he was a former director of a Texas contractor that was paid $826,676 from Citizens, Florida’s state-run catastrophic insurance company. Weatherford’s wife, apparently, has replaced him on the company board of directors.

Will Weatherford, technically, may not have had a legal obligation to report the apparent conflict of interest. But this was yet another murky instance of public money going to private contractors with very snuggly ties to state officials.

None of this is to say that Florida’s public schools ought to be immune from accountability. Or perhaps even competition.

But after the scandal around the departing Tony Bennett, someone needs to ask the governor and his allies for a little assurance: Is this really about raising student achievement and improving public education? Or has old-fashioned Florida cronyism gone to school?

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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