Public records quest meets dead end

My obsessive quest to uncover the whole story behind the 2012 Christel House Academy grade-change saga has apparently come to an end. And not a happy one.

One year, one month and 22 days after I filed a public-records request, the Indiana Department of Education responded. “After review of your records request, it was determined the Department does not maintain the records you are requesting,” legal assistant Leslie-Ann James said via email.

Oh, well.

The request was for certain DOE staff emails concerning the A-to-F school grading system that was being rolled out in 2012. The goal was to figure out when and why the department got rid of a “ceiling” on the points schools could earn for English or math test scores or student growth. This has never been explained to my satisfaction.

Remember that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed DOE emails last summer that showed then-Superintendent of Public Education freaking out because Christel House, a highly regarded Indianapolis charter school, was going to get a C under the new grading system. Department staff scrambled to make changes, and Christel House ended up with an A. Officials decided to ignore test scores for the school’s high-school students. But that only pushed its grade to a B.

How did it get to an A? Continue reading

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Records request leads to wait

A year ago this week, I filed a public-records request with the Indiana Department of Education. I’m still waiting to see if I’ll get what I asked for.

Kelly Bauder, a state DOE staff attorney, admitted this week that the department has been running behind on responding to a trove of records requests. Two employees who were working on the task left the department, she said. A new legal assistant has been hired and is learning the ropes.

“We’re hoping to get caught back up in the next couple of weeks,” she told me.

My request was for copies of departmental emails from 2012 concerning changes in the state’s school grading system. The objective is to tie up a loose end to a story.

Last summer, Associated Press Reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed DOE emails showing how former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff scrambled to tweak the system so Christel House Academy, an Indy charter school run by a Bennett political supporter, would get an A instead of a C.

Those emails showed the department decided not to count the performance of Christel House’s 9th and 10th-graders for accountability purposes. That boosted its grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A? Thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools, we learned the other change: getting rid of a “ceiling” on points awarded elementary schools for math or English test scores.

But it was never clear when, why and by whom that decision was made. Continue reading

Tony Bennett’s sad fall

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. Continue reading

Tony Bennett’s charter-school grade manipulation

Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was some kind of magician. He made dozens of Indianapolis high-school students disappear in order to award an A grade to a charter school founded by a GOP mega-donor.

Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press revealed Monday that Bennett and his Department of Education staff manipulated Indiana’s school grading system to produce an A for Christel House Academy, run by Indianapolis philanthropist Christel DeHaan.

The AP story, relying on email messages obtained under the state’s public-records law, shows Bennett and his top assistants scrambling frantically after they realized highly regarded Christel House was going to get a C under the newly revised grading system.

“I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, The Chamber (of Commerce), Brian Bosma, David Long, and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school,” Bennett vented to his assistants in an email on Sept. 13, 2012.

Bosma is speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. Long is president pro tem of the Indiana Senate. Why do they care what grade a charter school gets? As LoBianco writes, DeHaan “has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.”

Christel House was known as an effective school serving elementary and middle-school students from high-poverty backgrounds. It expanded to ninth grade in 2010 and added 10th-graders in 2011. And in the spring of 2012, its high-school students bombed the state’s end-of-course assessment in algebra. Continue reading