Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett defended himself Monday against a report that he deliberately improved the letter grade of an Indiana charter school run by an influential Republican donor when he was still that state's schools chief.
In a widely circulated story Monday, the Associated Press reported that Bennett scrambled last fall to overhaul Indiana's school grading system to change a charter school's grade from a "C" to an "A." Emails show a behind-the-scenes effort to alter the grade for Christel House Academy, despite questions from Bennett's staff about whether such a move was legal.
In one email, Bennett wrote, "They need to understand that anything less than an 'A' for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."
In another, he wrote, "This will be a HUGE problem for us."
The charter school's founder, Christel DeHaan, has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett, according to the AP. DeHaan told the AP that she never asked for any special treatment.
Bennett told the Times/Herald Monday that Christel House was among the top-performing charter schools in Indiana. If it hadn't earned an A, that meant something was wrong with the entire grading system, he said.
"It had nothing to do with politics," he said.
Bennett said that Indiana was in the midst of finalizing its school grading formula when the email exchange took place. He said he had hoped to use high-performing schools like Christel House to calibrate the system.
"We needed to make sure the school grades reflected how the schools really performed," he said.
The Associated Press story comes at a difficult time for Bennett.
Bennett persuaded Florida's Board of Education this month to preserve a "safety net" for schools to protect them against dramatic drops in school grades. He supported the policy at the urging of superintendents, despite his own misgivings that it might be "misleading" to the public.
The state board approved the recommendation on a narrow vote, but not before board members on both sides said Florida's school grades had become less meaningful. Board member Kathleen Shanahan, a staunch defender of accountability, asked if the state had to release grades at all.
Elementary and middle school grades, which were released Friday, showed an increase in the number of D's and F's, even with the padding. Despite their support for the safety net, some school leaders and union officials said the credibility of the entire grading system already had been undermined.
Florida Democrats said the latest developments cast further doubt on Bennett.
"Floridians deserve answers," Florida Democratic chairwoman Allison Tant wrote in a statement. "Is Bennett up to his usual tricks, doing favors for GOP donors? How can we trust Florida's school grades — already the product of political manipulation — with Tony Bennett in charge?"
Some in the education world called for Bennett's resignation.
"If the Florida Board of Education and Gov. Scott have any integrity, Tony Bennett must be summarily dismissed," said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes high-stakes testing.
The state Department of Education declined to comment on the Associated Press story.
Others were quick to defend Bennett, a rising star in school reform circles nationwide who lost his re-election bid in Indiana last fall after championing many of Florida's accountability measures, including the A to F school grading system. The state board hired him in December.
Shanahan called him one of the best education commissioners in the country and said she didn't think "all the facts are on the table" in the Associated Press story. She said she had confidence that Bennett would clearly explain what happened in Indiana.
"He's never run from any challenge before," she said.
State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he didn't see a parallel between the situation in Indiana and what had happened with the school grades in Florida.
Montford pointed out that Bennett recommended changes at the request of superintendents — not charter school operators or political donors.
"I can't tell you what happened in Indiana, but I can tell you what's happening here in Florida," Montford said. "(Bennett) has been responsive to superintendents' concerns."
Montford said the AP report did not shake his confidence in the commissioner.
"I think I speak for the majority of the superintendents of Florida when I say that," he added.
Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego didn't return calls for comment Monday.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she couldn't respond to the story without knowing more about it. But she said it would be "very difficult" to manipulate a single school's grade in Florida.
Indiana's school grading system, while similar to Florida's, isn't subject to the same level of public scrutiny. The Associated Press story said it wasn't clear what changed in Indiana's school grading formula or how many schools had been affected.
The school grade calculations for every school in Florida are publicly available.
The AP story describes a scramble at the Indiana Department of Education to figure out how to change Christel House's grade, including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high "B" look like an "A." Staffers also debated changing the grade just for Christel House.
One Indiana staffer said that "terrible" 10th grade algebra results had "dragged down their entire school." Bennett called the situation "very frustrating and disappointing" in an email.
"I am more than a little miffed about this," Bennett wrote. "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."
Bennett told the AP that the email expressed his concern that high-performing schools, such as Christel House, wouldn't be recognized in the grading system.
Christel House was an unusual fit for the state's new grading model, Bennett said. The charter enrolled students in kindergarten through the 10th grade. As a result, Christel House missed out on points other high schools earned, Bennett said.
"They didn't have all the factors," Bennett said. "So we decided to separate the grade levels out. We evaluated them based on the elementary and middle levels, and gave them an incomplete on the high school part."
The new letter grade: an A.
Bennett said the department applied the same rules to a dozen other "combination" schools.
"The idea that I was trying to play favorites was false," he said.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.