The Associated Press has broken a remarkable story about a seemingly frantic effort by then-Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett to overhaul that state's A-F school accountability system, in what appears to have been a targeted attempt to boost the grade of a charter school run by a significant campaign contributor of Bennett's.
The article by the AP's Indiana politics reporter Tom LoBianco, documents through e-mails how Bennett, who was elected in Indiana as a Republican and is now the state schools chief in Florida, and Indiana Department of Education staff members were alarmed by the performance of Christel House, a charter in Indianapolis, on the state's A-F grading system last fall. The school is owned by Christel DeHaan, a big-time contributor to Indiana political campaigns dating back to the late 1990s. Bennett himself had received $130,000 from DeHaan. UPDATE: Indiana campaign finance records show that DeHaan gave money to Bennett's campaign both before and after the grade changes triggered by her school's initial performance—she gave his campaign $15,000 at some point between Oct. 23, 2012 and Bennett's loss to Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, in the general election.
The charter school, because of the relatively poor performance of 10th graders in algebra testing, initially received a C grade. But Bennett deemed that grade unacceptable, and wrote repeatedly to his staff over the next few days grasping at a solution to the problem. (What was Bennett's initial reaction when he learned of the C grade for Christel House? "This will be a HUGE problem for us." His chief of staff, Heather Neal, wrote back, "Oh, crap.")
You can read the email exchanges about the Christel DeHaan school embedded below.
At one point, Bennett's deputy chief of staff, Marcie Brown, pointed out that "legally" it might not be possible to change the cutoff score for a school to obtain an A grade. How did Bennett respond? "We can revise the rule," he replied.
As LoBianco points out, it's not entirely clear how the charter school's grade ultimately leaped from a C to an A, or how many schools were affected in the end by ex post facto changes initiated by the department. But the school's grade was changed. Bennett had held up Christel House as a model top-performing school when he secured the change to an A-F school accountability system for Indiana beginning in the 2010-11 school year.
Bennett wrote in one of the emails: "I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months."
Reached by LoBianco about the emails, Bennett denied that he had made a special exception for the charter school.
"There was not a secret about this," he said. "This wasn't just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid."
As you may have read recently, Bennett, in his new role as Florida's education commissioner, the job he landed after losing his 2012 re-election bid in Indiana, recommended a dramatic change to Florida's A-F accountability system so that no school's A-F grade will drop by more than one letter in one year for both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. That move encountered some resistance, but won the approval of the state board of education earlier this month. The AP story may create a more difficult political environment for A-F school-grading systems in general and provide ammunition for those who believe the whole concept is flawed.
The A-F system was, by the way, pioneered in Florida under former Gov. Jeb Bush, who now leads the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a K-12 advocacy group which has as one of its affiliates Chiefs for Change. Who's a member of Chiefs for Change? Tony Bennett.