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Fla. Education Commissioner Resigns

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) – Just days after a scandal broke calling into question the integrity of Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, informed Governor Rick Scott he will resign.

Bennett announced his resignation at a news conference Thursday, explaining that while he did nothing wrong, he didn’t want to be a distraction to Governor Scott’s efforts to over the state’s education system.

“It’s not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distraction.” Tony Bennett said at a last minute press conference.

He said no one asked or forced him out.

“The decision is mine and mine alone,” said Bennett.

Bennett and his Indiana staff, revealed in emails published by The Associated Press this week, last fall scrambled to ensure Christel DeHaan’s school received an A, despite the officially earned grade of a C.

The lower grade was a result of poor 10th-grade algebra scores.

Bennett called that interpretation “malicious and unfounded” and said he would call for Indiana’s inspector general to look into the allegations because he is certain he will be cleared of wrongdoing.

He said it would be unfair to Scott “to have to spend my time and the State Board (of Education’s) time, as things continue to trickle out, defending myself.” He called the allegations “politically motivated.”

“Every minute we spend on the credibility of your commissioner because of what is said 800 miles away is a minute we waste that we should have been thinking about educating children in Florida,” Bennett said.

Still educators and politicians are not buying it.  State Representative Cherrish Pryor, a Democrat in Indianapolis had demanded the grades be tossed out.

“In this situation the books were cooked and grades were changed,” said Pryor. “Tony Bennett decided that we are not going to give equal opportunity to all the school systems and that’s unfortunate.”

Bennett lost his re-election bid last November in Indiana. He was hired by Florida as its education commissioner, a non-elected post, in December.

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.”

Bennett, who now is reworking Florida’s grading system as the 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 the state.

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 totally unfounded.”

He acknowledged that the problem was identified and fixed prior to the release of school grades but maintained the change affected as many as 13 schools.

“We did nothing wrong. We did nothing covert. We did nothing secretive,” Bennett said.

The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida’s grading system.

Bennett was brought to Florida to help move Florida into what’s called Common Core education.  The method used by a number of states around the country uses best practices from state to state to help children excel.

The methodology also puts all students on similar tests for accountability.  The change in Florida has not been exactly welcomed. When results came out last week upgraded standards forced hundreds of schools to be downgraded.  A schools became B schools.  B schools became C schools.

In Miami-Dade and Broward County’s School Districts there were a record number of F schools.

Senator Dwight Bullard, a teacher himself, was one of the voices calling for the resignation.  Bullard believes this is an opportunity for the state to get it right.

“I really think this gives us a situation as a state to clean our slate and really bring in someone who can approach this thing in the correct manner,” said Bullard.

Bullard said he hopes a replacement comes from within Florida.  Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is likely on the short list.

When asked about it Carvalho replied “I’m committed to the work here in Miami Dade.  I do believe as superintendent I have more dramatic and direct impact on teaching and learning, quality of life really than as Commissioner.”

Carvalho is offering to help the state re-access their plans.

“A crooked twig always grows into a bent tree.  I think that’s what we have right now.  There are fundamental flaws associated with the states accountability system that must be fixed regardless of who’s commissioner.  Protecting the status quo is not a reasonable approach.” Carvalho said.

Gary Chartrand, the chairman from the Florida State Board of Education, released this statement regarding Bennett’s resignation:

“Tony demonstrated great leadership transitioning Florida to new state standards – and he worked tirelessly during his tenure to provide students and teachers with the tools they needed to succeed. I thank him for his hard work and the support that he and Governor Scott have provided to educators and students across the state. In order to continue the success that Tony facilitated, it is my intention to convene a State Board of Education call tomorrow to recommend that the board appoint our K-12 Chancellor Pam Stewart as Interim Commissioner.”

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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