Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Education

Indiana school grades scandal casts doubt on Florida education commissioner

TALLAHASSEE — Nationally celebrated education reformer Tony Bennett was wooed to Florida in January to bring stability to the state Education Department.

Months later, his tenure as education commissioner could be in trouble.

Emails obtained by the Associated Press suggest that Bennett, while serving as education commissioner in Indiana last year, intervened to raise the grade for a charter school run by an influential Republican donor. Bennett was already under fire in Florida, where influential superintendents and state Board of Education members have raised questions about the validity of school grades.

Gov. Rick Scott declined two opportunities to speak publicly on the matter Tuesday, saying he had not read the AP report.

But with the 2014 governor's race looming, observers say Scott has a tough decision to make.

"If the governor wants to appeal to moderates across the state, he has to get rid of (Bennett)," said Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University and editor of the Miami Education Review newsletter. "If he doesn't, the message is that the game is rigged, and that public schools are going to be treated differently from charter schools."

On Tuesday, Bennett said he had received "really pretty strong support" from Scott's office and several lawmakers, as well as members of the state Board of Education. The seven-person board has the power to hire and fire education commissioners, but its members are appointed by the governor.

Bennett said the AP report would not affect his ability to serve as top education official.

According to the report, Bennett tinkered with Indiana's school grading system last fall to improve the grade awarded to Christel House Academy. Emails show staff members questioned whether the move was legal.

"It was never about making charter schools look good," Bennett said Tuesday.

Instead, Bennett said he changed the grade for Christel House from a "C" to an "A" because the school was docked points for not having a graduation rate. That year, Christel House only enrolled students in kindergarten through 10th grade.

Those who came to his Bennett's defense Tuesday included Patricia Levesque, the executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. Bush has been among Bennett's most ardent supporters.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, both Republicans, also praised Bennett's record and said speculation would be premature.

Stability is key for Scott, who has had three education commissioners and two interim education commissioners during his 31 months in office.

Bennett began in January, after losing re-election to his post in Indiana. Unlike Indiana, Florida appoints its top education official.

Bennett's application came as a relief. The state education board had received few credible applications for its top job, which became vacant in August.

Gerard Robinson, who had come to the state just a year earlier, resigned abruptly after having several high-profile problems with school grades and standardized testing.

Bennett already has had challenges in his short tenure. Earlier this summer, he urged the board of education to preserve a "safety net" to protect schools from dropping more than one letter grade in light of changes to the grading formula. The board approved his recommendation, but members on both sides of the debate conceded that school grades had become less meaningful.

Board member John Colon said Bennett's woes in Indiana, while unfortunate if true, would not influence his views of the commissioner's role in Florida.

"I'm judging Commissioner Bennett on what he's doing, not what I'm hearing," said Colon, a Sarasota financial adviser who joined the board after Bennett was appointed.

Board member Kathleen Shanahan said she, too, would continue to support Bennett.

But Rick Hess, an education policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said Bennett might not get full-throated support from the Republican Party leaders who once considered him a top education reformer.

The reason? Bennett has championed the Common Core State Standards, a new national curriculum that will be deployed in Florida schools over the next two years. Tea party groups vehemently oppose the concept.

"It's not at all clear that they're going to want to stand behind Bennett," he said. "More likely, they're going to look for an opportunity to push out Bennett in favor of a state chief who is not such a supporter of the Common Core."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Comments
Hudson Middle students shine in annual young authors event

Hudson Middle students shine in annual young authors event

NEW PORT RICHEY — James McFadden wrote a time-travel adventure story called, Escaping Time. Junaye Brown penned a twist on a classic fairy tale, called The Four Little Bears. Zoie Castleberry called on her own experience with a beloved pet to ...
Published: 09/24/18
USF assistant VP rides AHN wave of support to success

USF assistant VP rides AHN wave of support to success

Editor’s note: Academy of the Holy Names junior Tress Jacobs spent the summer of 2018 shadowing Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper. To conclude the experience, she interviewed Academy alumnus Kim Wilmath Hill and filed this report.By Tres...
Published: 09/23/18
How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a ‘work in progress.’

How do you explain active shooters to a first-grader? For educators, school safety is a ‘work in progress.’

Active assailant. Run-hide-fight. Barricade the classroom. The language of preventing a shooting like the one this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is often filled with terms that can stir up fear in students, often out of necessity.But f...
Published: 09/22/18

Two acclaimed authors to speak about water at USF St. Petersburg

Pulitzer Prize winner and University of Florida professor Jack Davis thinks people need to humble themselves more toward water."The water doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the water," he said. "Without water, humanity would not exist, life would not...
Published: 09/21/18
Updated: 09/22/18
Hillsborough school district releases referendum wish list

Hillsborough school district releases referendum wish list

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District on Friday released a long-awaited, school-by-school list of 1,785 projects to be funded by a proposed half-cent sales tax hike.The list, now on the district website, includes playgrounds for Anderson El...
Published: 09/21/18
Pinellas education news: college fairs, lectures and more

Pinellas education news: college fairs, lectures and more

Students, parents invited to three upcoming college and career fairsThree events are scheduled over the next two weeks that are designed to help students plan their next steps after leaving the Pinellas County school system. The University of South F...
Published: 09/21/18
Football player, band member, advanced student, girl: Pasco eighth-grader does it all well

Football player, band member, advanced student, girl: Pasco eighth-grader does it all well

TRINITY — Julie Michael stood in the metal bleachers, flute poised at her lips, ready to play the national anthem with the Seven Springs Middle School advanced band.As the band segued into the school fight song, the eighth-grader continued per...
Published: 09/20/18
Updated: 09/23/18
Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

Romano: We need education solutions not slogans from DeSantis, Gillum

And 200,000 third-graders just rolled their eyes.I swear, even they can see through the education proposals offered by gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum this week.Let’s see, the Republican wants more privatization. And the Democ...
Published: 09/20/18

Local rapper encourages elementary students to attend school every day(w/video)

Local rapper Corey Thornton performs original songs on Wednesday Sept. 18, 2019 about the importance of school attendance at Walsingham Elementary School during a school wide assembly. During Attendance Awareness Month, Pinellas County Schools and th...
Published: 09/19/18
Updated: 09/20/18
USF faces a reality as it prepares to consolidate: This is going to be hard.

USF faces a reality as it prepares to consolidate: This is going to be hard.

TAMPA — All summer, while most students were gone, the University of South Florida has been toiling away on a blueprint for the complex merger of the USF System.Its three universities in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota will soon consolidate into o...
Published: 09/19/18