Amid grading controversy, Florida education chief Tony Bennett resigns

The Miami HeraldAugust 1, 2013 

Tony Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida education commissioner following two days of controversy over school grades in his home state of Indiana.

He made the announcement at a news conference in Tallahassee late Thursday morning.

“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,” Bennett said.

Coming to Florida from the Hoosier state last January, Bennett had faced mounting calls for his resignation in the wake of revelations, first reported by The Associated Press, that he interceded on behalf of an Indiana charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor. On Thursday, he called those reports “malicious and unfounded.”

His resignation would be a major setback for Gov. Rick Scott and state education leaders, who are working to overhaul Florida’s system of school accountability and assessment in compliance with the national Common Core standards.

“I’m saddened by Commissioner Bennett’s departure,” state Board of Education member Sally Bradshaw wrote in an email to the Herald/Times. “This is a loss for Florida’s students.”

The Florida Department of Education has had a revolving door of leaders during Scott’s 31 months in office. Including Bennett, there have been three different education commissions and two interim education commissioners.

Bennett, a nationally recognized education reformer, came on board after losing reelection in Indiana.

His tenure encountered some early bumps in June, when superintendents leaned on him to institute a “safety net” to prevent school grades from dropping dramatically. Bennett had some misgivings, but ultimately conceded.

The exercise sparked a statewide dialogue about the validity of school grades, which dipped despite the padding. One member of the state Board of Education questioned if the state had to release grades at all.

Amid the controversy, scathing emails published by The Associated Press showed that Bennett had made changes to the school grading formula in Indiana after learning that a high-profile charter school would be awarded a “C” grade.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in one email.

The formula was tweaked and Christel House received an “A.”

Bennett has denied that the decision was motivated by politics. He said he ordered the change because Christel House lost points for not having a graduation rate, despite only enrolling students from kindergarten through 10th grade.

A dozen other schools benefitted from the change, he said.

“It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of school based on a political donor, or based on trying to hide a school from accountability,” Bennett told reporters Tuesday. “It’s fictitious, at best, and it’s totally unfounded. What we did do is make sure we were getting a transparent policy right for Indiana schools and Indiana schoolchildren.”

Bennett is a longtime ally of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Florida’s Future has driven the state’s education policy for the past decade. He active in Bush’s coalition of state education leaders, Chiefs for Change.

Bush could not be reached for immediate comment.

Bennett said Thursday, “I end my tenure withi my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education.”

His departure could prove problematic for the already unstable education department.

He had brought several people from Indiana, who now hold top jobs in Florida, including Chief of Staff Dale Chu, Deputy Commissioner Will Krebs and Common Core liaison Anna Shults. Chu and Krebs were involved in the emails published by the AP. Observers are questioning whether they should stay in Florida.

Andy Smarick, former deputy education commissioner for New Jersey, said a key to successful school accountability is continuity in leadership and coherence to a strong plan.

“It just doesn’t help a state to keep changing leadership,” Smarick said, noting Florida’s five leaders in less than three years. “It’s hard for districts and schools to latch onto a meaningful, lasting plan."

He suggested that Florida will have a tough time finding a new schools chief, given the constant churn since Scott’s arrival.

“People qualified to be state chiefs take very seriously the political environment in the states they are considering,” Smarick said. “They know changes in elections, changes in state boards, can leave them quickly without a job. That’s an issue.”

Mike Petrilli, editor of the Education Next reform journal, agreed that finding another high-flying commissioner would be difficult for Florida.

“Good luck with that,” Petrilli said.

State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he believed Bennett’s departure was the right thing for Florida if it means maintaining integrity for the state’s accountability systems.

Legg said questions about Bennett’s actions in Indiana could darken Florida’s efforts.

“We need to move forward to eliminate any question of improprieties,” Legg said, stressing he had heard no accusations that Bennett had acted inappropriately in recent grade formula changes in Florida.

Legg did not worry about finding a new commissioner.

“Florida is a dynamic state where things are cutting edge,” he said. “I imagine we will be very attractive for the next person they interview.”

But Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho urged state leaders to focus on policy.

“As long as we fixate on the who, the what goes unfixed,” Carvalho wrote in a statement. “There should be no celebration of the commissioner’s resignation. For our children’s sake, let’s get accountability right.”

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