I don’t know if you’ve seen the “signature” A-F school grading system yet, but it’s probably coming to your state. We have it in Ohio, but we blindly adopt every school reform gimmick and fad that comes down the pike:
Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s marks.
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.”
The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. 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.
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida’s grading system as that state’s education commissioner, reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that DeHaan’s school received special treatment.
However, the emails clearly show Bennett’s staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.
“The fact that anyone would say I would try to cook the books for Christel House is so wrong. It’s frankly so off base,” Bennett said in a telephone interview Monday evening.
Bennett rocketed to prominence with the help of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors, such as DeHaan. Bennett is a co-founder of Bush’s Chiefs for Change, a group consisting mostly of Republican state school superintendents pushing school vouchers, teacher merit pay and many other policies enacted by Bennett in Indiana.
But trouble loomed when Indiana’s then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.
“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to Neal.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”
By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a “C.”
A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a “C” to an “A,” including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high “B” look like an “A” and changing the grade just for Christel House. Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its “A.” By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75.
Bennett was chased out of Indiana in an upset election:
“This [race] is definitely being watched nationally as a referendum on reform,” Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute and Bennett ally, told the Associated Press. “If Tony Bennett can push this kind of aggressive reform agenda and win, it will give a big lift to other politicians eager to enact similar reforms.”
The campaigns and the messages they delivered couldn’t have been more different. Bennett raised more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions, with some of that money coming from prominent outside sources, including Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who donated $200,000 to Bennett’s campaign. Ritz, meanwhile, raised only about $250,000. In contrast to Bennett’s campaign ads, which started back in September, and were seen around much of the state, Ritz’s campaign didn’t start running TV ads until just days before the election and they were run in a handful of media markets and targeted cable TV stations.
His loss meant absolutely nothing going forward, and the race wasn’t taken as a “referendum on reform.” Bennett simply moved his “signature” school reform circus from Indiana to Florida, where he’s pursued exactly the same privatization agenda that we’ve been subjected to for more than a decade now, nationally.
Maybe we could launch a nationwide search and find some people who actually support public schools to run public schools. Continuing to hire people who seek to dismantle, defund and privatize public schools probably isn’t the Path To Excellence.