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Eastridge: Bennett allegations may raise additional questions

August 21, 2013
Less than eight months into his new position, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has resigned as Florida State Education Commissioner following allegations of his intervention in the Indiana school grading system to benefit a charter school run by a prominent Republican party donor.

Bennett said at a press conference on Aug. 1 that he would be resigning his post because he feared becoming a "distraction" and didn't want it to reflect poorly upon Florida's growing initiative.

"The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children," he said.

Bennett also had words for the Associated Press who first broke the story calling the reports "malicious and unfounded" and implied that sensitive information had been leaked in order to damage him politically.

This comes as a blow to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his state leaders who have been working to overhaul that state's system of school accountability. They are racing against time to adopt new national standards known as the Common Core and the accompanying exams.

Bennett was recruited to Florida in the last half of 2012 to provide a steady leadership role after the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

Associated Press reports allege that e-mail verification shows Bennett, a Republican, made changes to the school grading formula in Indiana after learning that the high-profile charter school Christel House Academy would be awarded a "C" grade under the original formula. Due to Bennett's supposed changes, Christel House's grade was readministered as an "A."

Bennett, however, denies that his changes to the school's grade were motivated by politics and maintains the grading formula unfairly admonished Christel House and other schools without traditional grade structures.

Christel House didn't offer classes to high school juniors and seniors, he said, so "the data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero."

However, the Associated Press and other organizations claim this isn't true, that the high school demographics were never figured into the "C" grade, they had already been disregarded.

Bennett said in his press conference that he stands by everything contained in his e-mails and when working on Indiana's grading system, he said, he expected many top performing charter schools to be rewarded for their performance, but that wasn't the case.

"We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools — there's been a focus on one school — but did not allow 13 schools to have their grades truly reflect their performance, and they were unfairly penalized. That wasn't rigging anything," Bennett said. "We did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children."

So, what exactly does a grade change mean to local public schools?

Crawford County Community School Corp. Superintendent Dr. Mark Eastridge said it can have a profound effect, but he believes the Indiana Department of Education will be able to sort through the problem.

"Any time you see those types of things, it's troubling because, if they're changed to benefit one, then it causes you to think ," he said. "What else has been changed?"

The Indiana Department of Education is responsible for the distribution of the state's federal educational dollars, and one of the biggest issues that school grades have power over is funding.

"Were funds given or withheld based upon flawed data?" Eastridge asked. "That's troubling."

Eastridge reminded people that it isn't just about the money or that a grade has been changed. Instead, he said, it's about a violation of community trust in the system. He added that Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz will have a tough job ahead of her.

"Her biggest challenge with all this will be restoring the trust in the position and the system," he said. "I have faith that they will review all of those (letter grades) to make sure that they are correct."

The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling for an investigation into the state's school grading system. According to an e-mail notification, the union has called for a moratorium on further school grading "until everyone is satisfied that the system and whatever consequences and/or support ensue can be administered fairly."

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