Tony Bennett went down defiant and dissembling, insisting he did nothing wrong when he boosted the grade of a charter school run by a political supporter. That’s too bad. Everyone would give him a lot more credit if he owned up to making a mistake.
Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida commissioner of education, saying he didn’t want the state to be distracted by the grade-changing scandal from 2012, when he was Indiana superintendent of public instruction. He blamed “malicious and unfounded reports” and insisted he was only trying to make sure the grading system was fair for all.
“What we did in Indiana was very simple,” Bennett said. “We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools to have their grade truly reflect their performance because they were unfairly penalized for kids they didn’t have in their school. That wasn’t rigging anything. I believe we did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children.”
But the intra-departmental emails that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed tell a very different story. Bennett was focused on making sure Christel House Academy, an Indianapolis charter school founded by philanthropist and GOP mega-donor Christel DeHaan, got an A. Christel House initially got a C because its high-school-age students bombed the state algebra exam. But Bennett knew Christel House was an A school – so the scoring system had to be changed.
As Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation writes, “It’s clear from the emails obtained by the AP that he was working backward from a pre-determined outcome in applying the state’s accountability rules to charter schools he favored … That’s the opposite of equal justice under the law.” Carey adds that Bennett crossed a line when he mischaracterized the grading change in a Q&A this week with supporter Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. (Anne Hyslop at New America Foundation and Jordan Ellenberg at Slate do a good job of explaining this).
Bennett often said he wasn’t comfortable with or good at politics, and this episode suggests it’s true. His team put together what he thought was a good system for his pet project of giving schools A-to-F grades. But throughout 2012, he was under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, charter school operators and GOP leaders who thought certain charter and private schools should get As. One of the most revealing passages in the emails is when chief state accountability officer Jon Gubera says, after adjusting the grading system, “You can now say that over half of charters are C or better.”
Of course, Bennett managed to lose re-election last fall to Democrat Glenda Ritz. If that hadn’t happened, we might not know about the Christel House debacle. Statehouse reporters say that, when Bennett was Indiana superintendent, the Department of Education rejected public-records requests for intra-office emails. But Ritz’s staff had no reason to stonewall the AP’s email request. Who knows, they may even have welcomed it.
This is perhaps a good place to say that, whatever you think about Bennett’s policy initiatives, he did what he thought was best for children. He was principled enough to cross the Republican base over Common Core, the federal role in education and other matters. He brought new attention to Indiana schools and forced Hoosiers to think about our educational values.
His downfall is sad – not because he got caught and not because he resigned, but because he spent his last week misrepresenting what happened. Bennett was Mr. Accountability. He should quit blaming “enemies” and admit he was wrong.