The fallout from Tony Bennett’s sudden resignation from Florida’s top education position last week amid a school-grading controversy stemming from his previous post in Indiana might alter the political environment around K-12 oversight and accountability, and trigger tougher questions for advocates of state policies that award letter grades to schools.
Mr. Bennett stepped down Aug. 1, following disclosure of records from his tenure in Indiana showing he had adjusted the state’s A-F grading system after learning a charter school that he had touted and that was run by a campaign contributor would earn a mediocre score for the 2011-12 school year.
Although the popularity of school-grading systems has risen in recent years, and can largely be attributed to the A-F model Florida itself adopted in 1999, Mr. Bennett’s fall from power might bring new scrutiny of those systems from governors, state lawmakers, and other officials around the country.
“Maybe it will be a good thing, because we’ll figure out more about the negatives and benefits of these kinds of systems,” said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who has studied Indiana education policy under Mr. Bennett.
But, while legislators in states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Virginia might start taking a closer look at their own A-F systems, Mr. Manna said, “I can’t really see that one guy’s failings here will bring all this stuff down.” The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national K-12 advocacy group that supports A-F school grading, lists 15 states that have adopted A-F systems.
Mr. Bennett took over as Florida’s appointed commissioner of education in January after losing his 2012 re-election bid as Indiana state superintendent to Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.
A nationally prominent K-12 leader, he is widely admired in some quarters of the policy community for his aggressive approach to promoting school choice and school accountability, and for overhauling teacher evaluations in Indiana. He also has strong political connections as a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of state education leaders that is affiliated with two advocacy groups run by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The departure of Mr. Bennett from Florida, roughly seven months after he began work in the state with the high-profile backing of Gov. Rick Scott and Mr. Bush, both Republicans, could also open up a leadership vacuum at a critical time for the state’s education policy decisionmaking around standards and tests.
The grading controversy erupted when the Associated Press on July 29 published internal email correspondence between Mr. Bennett, then the Indiana schools chief, and key staff members beginning on Sept. 12, 2012, when they first learned that Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis, would not earn an A grade on the state accountability system.
Christel House was operated by Christel DeHaan, an Indiana philanthropist who donated a total of $130,000 to Mr. Bennett’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Before the time of the emails published by the AP, Mr. Bennett had assured Ms. DeHaan and others, including Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, a Republican, that Christel House would receive an A.
Mr. Bennett told his staff in an email that anything less than an A for Christel House would compromise “all of our accountability work.” Ultimately, the grade for Christel House became an A, and the change also affected other schools.
During the Aug. 1 press conference announcing his resignation as Florida’s chief, Mr. Bennett denied any wrongdoing, stating that he had merely acted to save Christel House and other schools from unfair penalties under the A-F system. In a July 30 conference call with reporters, he said some schools without 12th grades, such as Christel House, had been hurt by not having graduation rates. “That wasn’t rigging,” Mr. Bennett told reporters. He denounced what he called “malicious” and “unfounded” reports out of Indiana, and said he would ask Indiana’s inspector general to investigate. (The Indiana Department of Education also has said it is examining the 2012 school grades.) Ms. DeHaan, in a statement, said neither she nor anyone associated with Christel House requested that its grade be changed.
He added that both Gov. Scott and Mr. Bush had asked him not to resign. Pam Stewart, the Florida education department’s chancellor, will take over for Mr. Bennett on an interim basis.
As the story unfolded, and after he resigned, Mr. Bennett received support for his work from such groups as the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the advocacy group chaired by Mr. Bush. The former governor said in an Aug. 1 statement: “Leadership is doing what is right, knowing the results will follow. The data is clear; thanks to Tony’s leadership, children are better prepared for success.”
On the same day Mr. Bennett stepped away from the Florida job, the Indiana affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers called for Indiana’s grading system to be suspended.
In an analysis of how Christel House Academy’s grade was altered by Indiana education officials on Mr. Bennett’s watch, Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation’s education policy program, determined that without any of alterations to the A-F system that ultimately led to Mr. Bennett’s departure from Florida, the school would in fact have earned a B, not the C grade Bennett’s chief accountability officer, Jon Gubera, identified in an email.
The lesson from what Mr. Bennett and his staff did to alter Indiana’s A-F system, she said, is that if such officials believe the right accountability model is in place, it should not be subjected to personal considerations. “My hope is that policymakers are paying attention, and that they don’t sort of use this [controversy] to either scrap the systems entirely, or attack the notion of school accountability in and of itself,” Ms. Hyslop said.
Mr. Bennett’s exit from Florida shows that accountability isn’t ultimately based on numbers, but the individuals who control them, said Marc Porter Magee, the president and founder of 50CAN, a K-12 advocacy group based in New York City.
“In the end, it’s an ethical effort, not a scientific effort. ... Do you trust the state chief and his team? If you sever that trust, the most important job going forward is to try to rebuild that,” he said.
When Mr. Bennett resigned last week, he was working to maintain political support for the Common Core State Standards in Florida, and also grappling with whether to keep the state in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a testing consortium developing assessments aligned to the new standards.
Florida Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat who said he supports the common core in principle and who called for Mr. Bennett’s ouster after the story broke, is among the state Democrats suggesting that the resignation should lead Florida to change its constitution to once again require state education commissioners to be elected.
“If nothing else, the voters should have a choice. The system that we have now is a deluge of political appointees,” Mr. Bullard said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Grading-System Scrutiny May Follow Fall of Fla. Chief