TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida’s Education Commissioner, Tony Bennett, is on the defensive after reports emerged this week that he allegedly changed the grade of a school in Indiana to benefit a political donor.
Bennett and his staff allegedly “frantically overhauled” the Hoosier State’s school-grading system last year when it looked like one of his political contributors’ schools might get a “C.” But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Bennett said it was “absurd” to believe he inflated grades to help Christel DeHann because of her political contributions to Bennett.
Bennett built his reputation on grading schools in Indiana and the Associated Press’ findings call into question the legitimacy of the grades.
Bennett said the Christel House school’s grade raised legitimate concerns about the grading system in Indiana, which was a new way of ranking schools for the state in 2012.
While the AP reported that the emails it obtained pointed to algebra results as part of the problem, Bennett said education officials figured out it was largely because Christel House’s high school and 12 others hadn’t yet added an 11th or 12th grade.
The rule governing grades in Indiana, though, required graduation rates to be included in high school grades.
“That calculation unfairly penalized those 13 schools,” Bennett said during the 40-minute conference call. “We found that and we fixed that in order to give a true, transparent grading model for Indiana schools.”
The questions come weeks after Bennett recommended keeping schools in Florida from dropping more than one letter grade on report cards issued this month, a continuation of a policy passed by the state board last year, before Bennett was on the job. Several local superintendents asked for that policy to be continued in 2013.
According to the AP report, Bennett received $130,000 in contributions from Christel, who gave $2.8 million to Republicans over the last 15 years. The superintendent of public education is elected in Indiana, unlike Florida’s system of having the commissioner appointed by the State Board of Education; Bennett lost his re-election bid in 2012.
In one portion of an email quoted by the AP, Bennett seemed particularly concerned with the fate of DeHann’s school.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in one email obtained by the AP.
Democrats instantly jumped on the report. Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant issued a statement Wednesday blasting Bennett.
“Floridians deserve answers,” Tant said. “Is Bennett up to his usual tricks, doing favors for GOP donors? How can we trust Florida’s school grades — already the product of political manipulation — with Tony Bennett in charge?”
Democrats were scheduled to hold their own press call Wednesday on the incident.
But several of Bennett’s longtime supporters rallied to his side, including former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. Bush still has strong influence on education policy in the state.
“Commissioner Bennett and his department found and corrected a mistake that would have unfairly penalized 13 schools missing data for grades they did not even serve,” said Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director, in a statement issued Tuesday. “They fixed a problem to be accurate and fair — any accusation otherwise is false and politically [motivated].”
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