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Tony Bennett: Allegations Concerning Indiana A-F Changes 'Absurd'

Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett denied any wrongdoing concerning his actions when serving as state superintendent in Indiana last year, when a mediocre grade for an Indianapolis charter school on the state's A-F accountability system last fall appears to have triggered a scramble to change the system.

In a conference call with reporters today, Bennett said that despite the impression given by an Associated Press story about emails from last September about Christel House Academy, a charter school run by one of his campaign donors, he did not initiate an A-F change for any political purpose or to help charter or private schools. Rather, he said, the change concerned a miscalculation of grades for 13 schools in the state in total (including Christel House, run by Christel DeHaan, an Indiana philanthropist who contributed to Bennett's political campaigns). He said to reporters that schools without 11th and 12th grades were "unfairly penalized" because they lacked a metric that measured their graduation rates. Christel House, he stated, was merely the "catalyst" that led the department to fix the problem.

"It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change a grade of a school based on a political donor, or based on trying to hide schools from accountability," Bennett said.

Bennett said that more information would eventually come out to support his claim, but didn't specify the nature of that information. He assured the public that Florida, in part due to its "rich tradition" of school accountability (the state also uses an A-F system for school accountability), should continue to feel confident about its A-F system. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and various legislators have supported Bennett since the AP story was published July 29, he said.

Asked about the apparent lack of transparency to the process by which the state's A-F system was changed, Bennett responded that the Indiana state board of education was kept updated about the department's work to review the new grades under the system. But he didn't indicate that the board knew of and signed off on the specific change related to the 13 schools in question, including Christel House. The state board, he added, ultimately approved the letter grades given out.

In one of his emails expressing consternation about the impact of Christel House's initial C grade, Bennett worried about how he would explain the "repeated lies" he had told. Asked about that expression, Bennett said that the quote needed to be put in better context. He said he had held up Christel House as a model of a top-performing school in the time leading up to the first results produced by the A-F system, and was worried about how the school's initially poor grade would impact that very public support of A-F.

"I was defending vigorously our system, and I was defending our system as a system that would appropriately identify A schools, B schools, C schools, D schools, and F schools," he said.

Finally, Scott Elliott, an education reporter at the Indianapolis Star, has a story out today providing additional context for the now-famous emails. For example, he states that charter schools expressed concern about a dry run of school-grade calculations early in 2012, in which not one charter received an A. Bennett assured them that revisions to the model were underway. Elliott also notes that Bennett was getting pressure from various sources over the actual results of the A-F system, and that in fact the system is now "on its way out."

For those who have not yet seen the emails published by the AP, they are embedded below:

Sept. 12, 2012 Emails From Tony Bennett



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