Today's news -- July 31, 2013



Indiana school grades scandal casts doubt on Bennett

Nationally celebrated education reformer Tony Bennett was wooed to Florida in January to bring stability to the state Education Department. Months later, his tenure as education commissioner could be in trouble. Emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett, while serving as education commissioner in Indiana last year, intervened to raise the grade for a charter school run by an influential Republican donor. Bennett was already under fire in Florida, where influential superintendents and state Board of Education members have raised questions about the validity of school grades. Gov. Rick Scott declined two opportunities to speak publicly on the matter Tuesday, saying he had not read the AP report. But with the 2014 governor's race looming, observers say Scott has a tough decision to make. "If the governor wants to appeal to moderates across the state, he has to get rid of (Bennett)," said Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and editor of the Miami Education Review newsletter. "If he doesn't, the message is that the game is rigged, and that public schools are going to be treated differently from charter schools." On Tuesday, Bennett said he had received "really pretty strong support" from Scott's office and several lawmakers, as well as members of the state Board of Education. The seven-person board has the power to hire and fire education commissioners, but its members are appointed by the governor. Bennett said the AP report would not affect his ability to serve as top education official.


Bennett's credibility called into question

It turns out Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett faces an even bigger challenge than winding down a discredited testing system and answering demands from legislative leaders to design new assessments for the Common Core State Standards. Now his personal credibility is at stake because of the way he manipulated school test results in Indiana, and his explanation is hardly reassuring. The Associated Press first reported this week that as head of Indiana schools last fall Bennett insisted that a charter school founded by a powerful Republican donor receive an A grade instead of a C. Bennett's emails left no doubt about his intentions for Christel House Academy even as his staff questioned whether it would be legal to change the letter grade. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,'' Bennett wrote in one email before adding in another, "This will be a HUGE problem for us.'' Now it is a huge problem for Bennett. The credibility of the school grading system in Florida is in shreds, highlighted by the frustration over the depressing letter grades that were released Friday. Those grades show a downward spiral even after Bennett pushed to limit the decline for each school to no more than one letter grade. School superintendents throughout the state complain that the grades do not accurately reflect the learning taking place in many districts. Bennett says he did not play favorites in Indiana and that the state's grading system was being adjusted at the time. He told the Times/Herald that he wanted to "make sure the grades reflected how the school really performed." Of course, that is the same issue being raised by teachers and principals in Florida as one Board of Education member wondered whether the state should even release school letter grades. Now the education commissioner explaining the Florida system has manipulated the Indiana system to benefit a Republican donor that gave his political campaigns more than $100,000. The revelation makes the motivation behind Bennett's moves in Florida more suspect. He is a politician, a favorite of conservatives and a strong advocate of charter schools and vouchers that use public money to cover private school tuition. Will Bennett bend over backward in Florida to tweak performance standards to protect charter schools? Will he be swayed by political pressure from testing companies as he decides whether to recommend that Florida design its own tests for the Common Core State Standards? When Florida voters reduced the size of the elected state Cabinet, one of the benefits was transforming the state education commissioner from an elected position to an appointed one that should be less susceptible to political considerations. But Bennett is a politician, and now it's clearer what side he chooses when partisan politics collide with public policy -- and it's not policy.


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