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Ethics Panel Absolves Tony Bennett of Wrongdoing in School-Grade Changes

The Indiana State Ethics Commission has cleared former state Superintendent Tony Bennett of any ethics violations for his actions to alter A-F school accountability in 2012 after he learned that an Indianapolis charter school received a C grade. However, they also found Bennett guilty of using state resources for political campaign purposes, and the former state K-12 chief (who had moved on to the top education job in Florida but resigned last year when the A-F story became public) agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as punishment.

On July 10, the commission approved state Inspector General David Thomas' agreement with Bennett that the former state superintendent pay the $5,000 fine regarding the use of state resources. 

Nearly a year ago, emails were published by the Associated Press showing that in 2012 Bennett and his staff, upon learning that an Indianapolis charter school, Christel House, received a C grade after initial calculations, changed the state's grading formula and gave Christel House an A without notifying the public. In the emails, Bennett stressed the importance of a high grade for Christel House because he had pledged state lawmakers that the school would get a top grade. Bennett stressed anything less than an A grade for Christel House would compromise "all of our accountability work" and that Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, could react badly to a low grade for the school. And he also spoke of his fears about the "repeated lies" about the school (which is run by a philanthropist who contributed to Bennett's campaign) he had told over the previous six months.

However, Bennett has consistently denied that he and his top staff altered the state's A-F system specifically to benefit Christel House, saying that the problem involved several other schools, and that changes to the A-F system were made with the entire accountability system in mind. Although he resigned from his post as Florida education commissioner after the story broke, he asked Inspector General Thomas to investigated whether he violated any of the state's ethics code.

Thomas ultimately sided with Bennett, saying that 16 other schools received the same treatment that Christel House did in the A-F formula, and that the changes were "plausible" and "consistently applied" to other schools. 

That opinion doesn't square with an Indianapolis Star report last year, however, that other schools might have avoided being taken over by the state in 2011 had the same changes made to Christel House's grade been made to those schools' grades. (At the time, then-Indianapolis Public School Superintendent Eugene White had specifically asked Bennett to make the same changes Bennett ended up making on behalf of Christel House and other schools a year later regarding high-school test scores, but Bennett refused to do so.)

Thomas also doesn't address the open question of whether Bennett and his staff would have been motivated to make the A-F changes they did if a school other than Christel House had been at the center of internal Indiana education department discussions back in 2012.

As for the misuse of state resources? That stems from the fact that Bennett kept data for his 2012 reelection bid, which he ultimately lost to Glenda Ritz, on state computers. The data stored on the computers included information on donors. In the ethics settlement announced July 10, Bennett conceded that he had improperly used state resources for explicitly political reasons.

Read Thomas' report on Bennett's activities, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, below:

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