INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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 marks.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff
scrambled last fall to ensure influential 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, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's
The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of
changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the
validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the
A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and
whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school
need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how
much state funding schools receive.
A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as that state's
education commissioner, reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that
DeHaan's school received special treatment. He said discovering 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 state legislative leaders.
Bennett estimated that 12 or 13 schools benefited, not just Christel
House, but the emails show DeHaan's charter was the catalyst for any
"The fact that anyone would say I would try to cook the books for Christel
House is so wrong. It's frankly so off base," Bennett said in a telephone
interview Monday evening.
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 enacted by Bennett in Indiana.
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 House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David
But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first
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.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, "Oh, crap. We cannot release until
this is resolved."
By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a "C."
A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant
superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana
Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a
"C'' to an "A," including adjusting the presentation of color charts to
make a high "B'' look like an "A'' and changing the grade just for
It's not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading
formula, but they do show DeHaan's grade jumping twice.
"That's like parting the Red Sea to get numbers to move that
significantly," Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township schools in
Indianapolis, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
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 comment on the
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 re-election 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
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 email expressed his frustration at having assured
top-performing schools like DeHaan's would be recognized in the grading
system, but coming away with a flawed formula that would undo his
When Bennett requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him
that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an "A."
Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be
able to "legally" change the cutoff for an "A."
"We can revise the rule," Bennett responded.
Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House
its "A." By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75. Gubera resigned
He declined comment Monday.
The emails don't detail what Gubera changed in the school formula or how
many schools were affected. Indiana education experts consulted for this
article said they weren't aware the formula had been changed.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this story from
Links to the emails:
http://apne.ws/1aT2Tr1, http://apne.ws/14u6wh2, http://apne.ws/19t1GZw,