Monday, April 23, 2018
Education

Report says confusion caused flap that led Bennett to resign as education chief

The Indiana school grading controversy that led to Tony Bennett's resignation as Florida education commissioner resulted more from bureaucratic struggles than impropriety, according to a report issued Friday.

Bennett said in an interview he expected these results all along. But he did not believe it would have been appropriate to remain as Florida commissioner while awaiting the outcome.

"I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last months making sure we provided everything we had to the investigators," he said. "I didn't believe I could do those things and be commissioner of Florida."

He stressed that he was not pushed out by Gov. Rick Scott, who faces a re-election bid in 2014. Bennett was the fifth person to serve as education commissioner during Scott's term.

"Gov. Scott was good to me. I appreciate the opportunity he gave me to come here and serve," Bennett said. "It was the fact that I was accused of a pretty serious offense. … That was going to be a distraction. I didn't believe that would be fair to anyone in Florida."

The report, commissioned by the Republican leaders of Indiana's House and Senate, states that Bennett's Indiana team did not anticipate all the complexities of implementing a school grade system and therefore struggled to deal with what they saw as incongruities.

Issues came to a head when Bennett learned that a well-regarded charter school, run by a prominent political supporter, was slated to get a C grade. His department scrambled to ensure that the school got the grade that Bennett said the school deserved, as reported by the Associated Press a year later in stories that started the questioning that led to Bennett's abrupt departure from his Florida post.

The report, written by a non-governmental group called Policy Analytics, concluded that Bennett applied the same grade changes he made for the charter school to all other schools that met the same criteria, 165 in all. The method was "plausible," the report stated, although the grading effort still did not have a level of trust or understanding among many members of the public, including many Indiana education leaders.

Policy Analytics did not delve into political motivations behind the decisions. Bennett supporters applauded the report as proof he was right, while doubters continued to question his actions.

Indiana, like Florida, is now reviewing its school grading model to determine if any changes are required. Policy Analytics made several recommendations, which could apply to any state dealing with a grading formula. The group said states should:

• Provide for extensive involvement by educators and education experts.

• Be transparent in all decisionmaking.

• Develop new systems that are simple, more easily understood and equitable.

Participants in a recent Florida education summit discussed similar ideas as leaders revisit the state's accountability and grading model.

Bennett said he did not intend to be part of the conversation. Florida is a closed chapter in his life, he said, adding that he is looking to move back to southern Indiana.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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