Tony Bennett Tony Bennett

I wasn’t ready to return to work after foot surgery until I read the news about Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who, according to this AP story, pushed for a change in Indiana’s school grading system (when he ran the schools there)  to ensure that a favored Indianapolis charter school got an “A.”

The amazing story is told in a series of e-mails obtained by the Associated Press, which show how Bennett pushed staff members to make sure that the charter school headed by Christel DeHaan, an influential Republican donor, did not get a “C.” Anything other than an A was not acceptable, he made clear. After all, he had  been going around the state talking about how his standardized test-based school reform program had been working wonders. A “C” for this school would, apparently, hurt his accountability reputation.

The school grading system that Bennett adopted in Indiana was, ironically, pioneered in Florida when Jeb Bush was governor, from 1999-2007. After Indiana voters pushed out Bennett late last year, Florida’s Board of Education wasted no time in bringing Bennett over to run the Sunshine State’s public schools. It was not a coincidence that the board is dominated by Bush supporters, and that Bennett was a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of former and current state superintendents that Bush assembled to advance his brand of corporate-influenced school reform. Indiana (and other states) use the A-F school grading system for several reasons, including how much money schools receive and which schools should be taken over by the state because of poor performance. (Incidentally, Florida voted to change its own A-F school grading system in July, but more on that below.)

The AP story details the e-mails to and from Bush and staff members over about a week’s time on this issue.

A Sept. 12, 2012 e-mail to Heather Neal, then chief of staff, said:

They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.



This will be a HUGE problem for us.



I am more than a little miffed about this. 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 Associated Press (read the whole story here) that the system change was not meant to benefit the charter school and that there was no secret around the change.

Sure thing, Commissioner Bennett.

The AP story said the e-mails did not make clear what in the school formula was actually changed or how many schools were affected by the change.

This storyline is getting all too familiar: School reformers who have wrapped themselves in the data-driven accountability veil don’t like it so much when their narrative gets disturbed by the facts. So what do they do? They change the rules so the story they do like gets told, despite the facts.

In July, for example, the Florida Board of Education voted to change the state’s A-F school grading system because members worried that as many as a third of public schools would see plummeting grades as a result of new and supposedly higher standards resulting in lower student test scores. The board decided that no matter what the test scores are, no school can drop more than one letter grade in a single year.

Will Bennett survive as schools chief? If there is any place in the country where he could, it is Florida, though the governor, Rick Scott, is hoping (somewhat inexplicably) to win re-election with the help of teachers and is likely to look carefully at the impact of keeping Bennett. Some Florida Democratic legislators are, not surprisingly, calling him to resign. The question is whether he will be forced to by his Republican patrons.

Now that Commissioner Bennett has gotten me back to work, I’ll be watching.