Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett today resigned his position, following revelations July 29 that during his tenure as Indiana’s K-12 chief in 2012, he altered the state’s A-F school accountability system after discovering that an Indianapolis charter school that was run by one of his political donors received a lower-than-expected score.
Mr. Bennett, who took over the top Florida education job in January, is a nationally prominent K-12 official who is widely admired in some quarters of the education policy community for his aggressive approach to promoting school choice and school accountability, and for overhauling teacher evaluations in Indiana. He also has strong political connections as a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of state superintendents that is affiliated with two K-12 advocacy groups run by former GOP Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Mr. Bennett lost his 2012 re-election bid in Indiana to Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.
During 2012, Mr. Bennett had assured the operator of Christel House Academy in Indianapolis that the school would receive an A grade. But on Sept. 12 of last year, emails published by the Associated Press reveal that he and his staff were spurred to change Indiana’s A-F accountability system when they saw that Christel House would not earn an A.
In a press conference Thursday in Florida, Mr. Bennett called allegations of wrongdoing based on those stories "malicious" and "unfounded," but said he had decided to resign to eliminate distractions for Florida education and political leaders. He also said he would ask Indiana's inspector general to investigate the grade-changing situation in Indiana and was "fearless" about the results of such an investigation.
"It's not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distractions," Mr. Bennett said.
He announced that Pam Stewart will serve as the interim education commissioner. Ms. Stewart, currently the chancellor of public schools at the Florida education department, had previously served as commissioner between the resignation of former Commissioner Gerard Robinson last year and Mr. Bennett's appointment. The next permanent Florida education commissioner will be the fourth to serve Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. Mr. Bennett said at his press conference today that Gov. Scott told him that he should stay despite the news.
In a separate conference call on July 30 with reporters, Mr. Bennett denied any wrongdoing, stating that he would never alter accountability measures to benefit charter schools or any political donor.
Last month in Florida, Mr. Bennett shepherded through a change to Florida’s A-F grading system for schools intended to limit the consequences from an expected drop in grades as the Common Core State Standards and tests aligned with them are phased in through the 2014-15 school year. And he is facing pressure from Florida elected officials to drop out of a federally funded consortium developing common-core-aligned tests.
Prior to today’s developments, Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, said of the Indiana controversy that Mr. Bennett “has a lot of different things he’s juggling. And this does not help.”
Mr. Loveless said the Indiana revelations also highlight the importance of states’ protecting their accountability systems from the appearance of political influence. “You have to be very careful that you wall off accountability, which should not be influenced by elected officials, from the politics of the state,” he said. “Until you do that, you’re going to have these ethical questions.”
Trail of Emails
The Indiana firestorm was ignited this week when the Associated Press published emails from September 2012, when Mr. Bennett was still Indiana’s elected state superintendent. At that time, they show, Mr. Bennett and top aides learned that the Christel House Academy charter school would earn a C grade for the 2011-12 school year—largely because of low 10th grade algebra scores.
That prospect set off a flurry of activity by the state education department to see how it could alter the A-F system, an accountability measure that Mr. Bennett had championed.
Mr. Bennett had previously assured the school’s operator, Christel DeHaan, and Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, a Republican, that the school would receive an A grade. Given the mediocre scores for Christel House, Mr. Bennett wrote to aides that his pledges amounted to “repeated lies.”
Subsequent email correspondence shows that Mr. Bennett and staff members discussed and ultimately made changes to school grading as it related to Christel House and other schools, although it remains unclear exactly what those changes were. The school’s score ultimately rose to an A, or a 3.75 on the scale.
Ms. DeHaan contributed a total of $130,000 to Mr. Bennett’s political campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Campaign-finance records show that for the reporting period from last Oct. 23—after the email exchanges obtained by the Associated Press occurred—through the end of 2012, she gave Mr. Bennett’s campaign $15,000. She has also contributed to Indiana Democrats and to President Barack Obama.
In a July 30 conference call with reporters, Mr. Bennett denied that he had acted improperly. In fact, he said, officials changed the grades for Christel House and 12 other schools that were “unfairly penalized” for not having graduation statistics. At the time, 10th grade was Christel House’s highest grade level.
Mr. Bennett also said that confidence in Florida schools’ A-F grades shouldn’t be compromised as a result of the Indiana disclosures.
“It has never been, and it won’t be, about political donors or making charter schools or private schools look good,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bennett, who was hired to lead the Florida schools after losing his Indiana re-election bid, had been dealing with the aftermath of the Florida state board’s July 16 vote to alter the A-F accountability system (on his recommendation) so that no individual school’s grade will drop by more than one letter grade in one year for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
The 2013-14 year is the first time the common core will be implemented in all Florida grades, and 2014-15 is the first scheduled year for new assessments aligned with the common core.
“I believe the transition to [the common core] will be an opportunity to provide greater transparency in our state accountability system,” Mr. Bennett wrote to the state board.
Florida’s A-F system was enacted in 1999 and supported by then-Gov. Bush. Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a K-12 advocacy group chaired by Mr. Bush, had written a July 15 letter to the board opposing the change.
But in an interview, Mr. Bennett denied the change represented a “relaxation” of accountability along the lines of the state’s decision to lower the cutoff score on its writing test last year, following a drop in student performance.
Mr. Bennett also had to deal with opposition to common-core assessments from Senate President Don Gaetz and Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, both Republicans, who said the state should drop out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing consortium. (On a national level, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also voiced opposition to the common core late last month.)
Before news of his impending resignation, Mr. Bennett said the state is weighing a potential “Plan B” alternative to the PARCC assessment, but said that support for the standards in Florida remains strong. So far, no legislation to repeal the common core in Florida has been introduced.