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Tony Bennett Exonerated in Indiana Grading Furor

Back in July, an edu-scandal engulfed Florida schools chief Tony Bennett. Bennett, who'd been superintendent in Indiana until losing a reelection bid last November, was accused of having altered the grade of the Christel House charter school in order to placate a campaign contributor. Readers will recall a "Straight Up" interview from the day after the furor broke, in which Bennett denied wrongdoing and explained that the controversial e-mails simply reflected him trying to ensure Christel House and similar schools didn't get a raw deal. He said careful scrutiny would show that everything was above-board. That interview ran on a Wednesday. The next day Bennett unexpectedly resigned. His resignation, coupled with a column by New America Foundation staffer Anne Hyslop, which disputed his narrative, raised questions about what really happened.

Flash-forward five weeks, and we finally have a resolution. The headline: Bennett exonerated. That's the conclusion of a 56-page official report, requested by Indiana's legislative leaders, and released Friday. Authored by Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics, the report finds that Bennett acted appropriately and fair-mindedly. Grew and Sheldrake spent the past month or so investigating what happened and reviewing the data. They concluded that Bennett and his staff made "fair" and "plausible" changes to Indiana's school rating system before releasing 2012′s A-F grades. They found that a lack of planning and capacity had forced Bennett and his team to make a series of on-the-fly "interpretations" and judgments, but that Bennett and his staff "consistently" applied changes to Christel House and 180 other affected schools. In short, nothing to see here.

Beyond the obvious, there are four points worth making.

First, upon seeing Grew and Sheldrake's verdict, I flashed on former Reagan Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan's famous question: "What office do I go to to get my reputation back?" Bennett gave up his Florida post amidst a drumbeat of innuendo and unproven allegations. As Bennett told reporter Maureen Hayden, "Let's make no mistake, we were already tried and convicted in the court of public opinion." It's time to give Bennett his due, proffer the apologies he so richly deserves, and try to do a better job next time of not rushing to judgment.

Second, the larger point here is that our system for handling state accountability and grading systems is amateurish and half-baked. The Indiana report concluded, "IDOE under-estimated
administrative and technical challenges associated with developing the new administrative rule, computer programming and testing necessary to implement the new rule." This is entirely typical, and is hardly surprising--given SEAs limited bandwidth and the casual guidance provided by most legislatures and state boards when they adopt high-stakes accountability and school grading systems. Huge numbers of decisions about to apply these policies to different kinds of schools, with atypical grade configurations, student populations, or particular circumstances, are treated as so many minor details. Bennett and his peers are routinely put in an untenable bind. If they adjust these systems as outliers and problematic cases emerge, they run a constant risk of being slammed for manipulation or playing favorites. Of course, if they don't make adjustments, they're sure to be slammed for ignoring obvious problems. These systems inevitably entail lots of judgment calls, and SEA officials are routinely forced to handle these without the benefit of a formal appeals or rule-making process. This is not how such issues are handled in areas, like accounting, corporate stock offerings, or the NFL salary cap (for heaven's sake!), where such processes are taken seriously. Formal processes can insulate officials from the pleas of friends and ensure that requests are systematic and transparent. Until we get serious about building such structures, state chiefs are working with rubber bands and duct tape.

Third, I think this whole episode illuminated an important, unanticipated consequence of the Common Core. Absent the Common Core, Bennett would have enjoyed a surge of support from Florida Republicans who embraced his policies and persona. However, Bennett had become so identified as a prominent Common Core backer, that I think a number of Florida Republicans who might have otherwise rallied to his cause were instead inclined to see a silver lining in his departure. We can expect to see more of this kind of thing, especially on the right, in the next few years.

Fourth, one final point. The purpose of "Straight Up" interviews is to provide an unfiltered forum and allow the subjects to speak for themselves. Bennett made his case and it allowed critics to get concrete statements that they could examine or challenge. In the aftermath of the interview, though, an energetic handful of readers wanted me to determine whether or not Tony's account was accurate. Let's be clear; I don't fact-check everything that an interviewee says in this kind of context, and I'm not sure I know of any scholar or journalist who does either. An interview doesn't mean I'm endorsing or confirming what I'm told--just that I'm trying to use my relationships, access, and platform to share what they have to say. If readers are dubious of claims or statements, they're free to fact-check them to their heart's content.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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