Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is facing calls to resign from state Democrats. Bennett is accused of changing school grades during his tenure as Indiana’s schools chief, but the story in Florida seems more about politics than policy.
As head of Indiana’s public schools, Tony Bennett implemented a school grading system similar to Florida’s. The first year Indiana schools received a report card was 2012. But before the report cards were released, Bennett says he and other Indiana officials were made aware of problems:
“We found this unfair penalty to these 13 schools as we were running the grades. We adjusted that calculation prior to the board approving these and prior to the board approving these and being announced," Bennett said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
E-mails obtained by the Associated Press show Bennett directed Indiana Department of Education officials to revamp the grades before they were released – a move which benefited the Christel House charter school run by a donor to his reelection campaign. The conflict centers on how Indiana was evaluating so-called combination schools—in this case, 13 schools that didn’t yet have graduating classes. Since graduation rates were a part of Indiana’s grade formulas, the schools, including Christel House, couldn’t be evaluated properly under the formula. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Bennett said his emails to other Indiana education officials were taken out of context:
“The truth is, I said this system would identify schools, and when it didn’t, I thought that would make our system be made invalid and that it would be perceived that I lied about the system ,and I didn’t think that was a good idea either, and that’s the reason behind that email and that statement.”
But Florida Democrats aren't buying that.
“I think we deserve to know if he’s brought his pay-to-play tactics from Indiana to Florida also," said Tampa Democratic Representative Janet Cruz, who bashed Bennett on a conference call Wednesday.
Cruz is among a group of Florida Democrats who have pounced on Bennett and, by extension, Governor Rick Scott. The revelation comes just after Florida’s state board of education instituted a rule keeping school grades from dropping more than a single letter grade each year – a move made to keep the state’s transition to a new set of education standards from sinking many schools. But that’s a change to a system which predates Bennett’s arrival in Florida. Some state board members and local school superintendents had expressed concerns the system wasn’t accurately measuring schools before Bennett took his current job. Democratic Party Spokesman Joshua Karp says while there are no direct links between Bennett’s decisions in Indiana and school grades in Florida his party is still concerned:
“With someone like Tony Bennett in charge who we know has given special attention at a minimum and special treatment to schools owned by his big political donors in Indiana, we can’t trust these grades are being given legitimately.”
University of Miami Political Science Professor Joseph Uscinski says, "The reason why we’re talking about it is because there’s an assumption that there was a political favor.”
Ucinski says if Bennett is telling the truth about being misled by his lieutenants in Indiana, the situation could blow over.
"If it is the case that it’s more benign, that there are a handful of schools that had to be treated differently because there’s a complicated system in place to give these grades, that may simply explain this. But we’d have to do more investigation to find that out.”
Bennett is Florida’s third education chief during Governor Rick Scott’s time in office. The Governor says he still supports Bennett and thinks he’s doing a good job, but has not addressed calls for Bennett’s resignation.
Ucinski says if Bennett does step down, those who oppose him may not like who they get in his place:
“I think Michelle Rhee is looking for a job...I don’t think anyone is going to wind up with someone they really want here. I think these positions are highly politicized, and something people care very deeply about. But its also something where there’s very little understood.”
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