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National Politics

Fla. schools chief defends role in grade change


Published:   |   Updated: July 30, 2013 at 06:52 PM

TALLAHASSEE - Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is moving quickly to defend his actions in his former job in Indiana and reassure legislative Florida leaders and other top state officials that he did nothing wrong there.

Bennett reached out to them after The Associated Press reported his education team in Indiana overhauled the school grading system to improve the marks of a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor.

Indiana's top education official now says her department is examining all grades awarded to schools under the state's accountability system to ensure that no school has a mark it doesn't deserve.

The revelation comes during a time of vigorous debate over whether Florida's grading system is valid in the wake of a string of changes the last two years.

Although some critics have called on Bennett to resign, so far his bosses in Florida say they remain confident in him. The State Board of Education hired Bennett after he lost his re-election bid as Indiana schools superintendent.

'If true it is troubling," said Sally Bradshaw, a board member. "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 this case."

John Colon, another board member, said he has "complete faith" in Bennett especially as the state begins its transition to new common core standards.

It's unclear what level of support Bennett has from Gov. Rick Scott.

Bennett said he talked about his actions in Indiana with Scott's office and that he had received "pretty strong support" from Scott's staff. But Scott said at event in Orlando that he not seen the stories about Bennett and would not comment about them.

Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott, later praised Bennett and said he is "clearly committed to making Florida's education system the best in the nation."

While in Indiana, Bennett championed putting in an A to F grading system. It mirrored in some ways the system former Gov. Jeb Bush developed in Florida.

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 test scores in algebra that initially earned it a "C."

"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.

Bennett on Tuesday maintained his actions weren't done just to benefit a school run by a friend and donor. He said the news about the school's grade told him that there was a problem overall with the formula. He said the change made by Indiana wound up helping 13 schools.

"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."

Earlier this month Bennett pushed Florida's board to adopt a "safety net" provision preventing the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.

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 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.

Democrats said the news that Bennett changed the grading formula in Indiana means that Floridians can't trust the new school grades that were just released.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami and a persistent critic of the state's grading system, said Bennett should resign since he has "shown a willingness to bend the rules" for someone who is politically connected.

"I can't in good conscience as an elected member of this Legislature foresee that person remaining in the position they are in," Bullard said.

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