INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana education leaders on Tuesday pledged a
thorough review of the state's system for evaluating schools after The
Associated Press reported a former official who now serves as Florida's
education commissioner worked to alter a grade for a school founded by a
top Republican donor.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said the Department of
Education is examining the current A-F grade calculations "to ensure
that every school has the grade they earned in 2012; nothing more,
Tony Bennett, who was appointed Florida's top education official in
December, denies any wrongdoing. He says the changes to Indiana's
grading formula weren't solely directed at Christel House Academy. But
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 10th grade algebra scores that initially
earned it a "C."
Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer
Institute in Boston, said Bennett needs to resign his Florida position
for violating the trust of Indiana students and parents.
"All you have as an official is your credibility. And that people trust
you to do the right thing," Stergios told The Associated Press. "He has
been entrusted with the hopes of parents and the aspirations of
children. That's a sacred trust."
But in Florida, at least one member of the State Board of Education,
which hired Bennett, said she remains confident in the job he is doing.
"If true, it is troubling," said Sally Bradshaw, a board member and
former chief of staff under Bush. "But Florida has had to adjust our own
school grading system to ensure that the grading formula is applied
uniformly, and my sense is that that may be what happened in Indiana in
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 elsewhere.
After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he
fired off a Sept. 12 email to his chief of staff.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to
understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises
all of our accountability work."
Ritz, a Democrat who defeated Bennett in his re-election bid last
November, said the department also will work to create a new
accountability system based on individual student academic performance
"Accountability only works when the people making decisions are both
fair and transparent," she said in a statement.
Republican Senate Pro Tem David Long called for annual third-party
audits of the A-F grades to restore public confidence in the ratings.
"The big issue is the fact that it would appear one or more school's
grade was manipulated. That's completely unacceptable," Long said. "The
system has to be one that all the schools, parents and kids can count on
as being fair and impartial. If there's one thing that can't be allowed,
it's that any school grades can ever be allowed to be manipulated
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as that state's
education commissioner, denied that DeHaan's Christel House Academy
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
Bennett downplayed the emails on Tuesday, repeating his assertion that
he took action because he was concerned there was a flaw in the formula.
"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. "That's fictitious at best and it's
He acknowledged that the problem was identified and fixed prior to the
release of school grades but maintained the change affected as many as
"We did nothing wrong. We did nothing covert. We did nothing secretive,"
The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change
the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida's grading
Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees
education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the
grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this
That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism
that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. Bennett's
plan was even opposed by the education foundation set up by former Gov.
Jeb Bush. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the
number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.
The following is a statement from the Indiana State Teachers Association
which arrived in the Chesterton Tribune email inbox Tuesday
ISTA has made it clear that there is absolutely no excuse for the actions
taken by Bennett and his staff. The emails in question show that the
Christel House Academy charter school's letter grade was knowingly
manipulated and retrofitted by the very people who have created and
championed Indiana's new accountability systems for schools and educators
- unfortunately, many of those officials continue to serve in important
policy-making positions in state government.
"The revelation of these emails has created zero confidence among public
school educators. This manipulation of data is wrong and needs to be
addressed by state leaders to ensure that a system is put in place that is
fair to all and above reproach," said ISTA President Teresa Meredith.
ISTA is concerned, too, because Bennett and his staff have created yet
another situation for Superintendent Ritz and her staff to "clean up" -
efforts that will take a great deal of taxpayer resources as well as time
taken away from helping children.