Blog: The Educated Reporter

Amid Allegations of Grade Tampering During Indiana Tenure, Bennett Resigns as Florida’s Education Commissioner

Tony Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida’s education commissioner amid news reports that while he was Indiana’s schools chief he had ordered an accountability grade to be raised for a charter school run by one of his major donors. (Tom Lobianco of the Associated Press broke the story.)

Bennett has been a much-touted star for the so-called school accountability reform movement, and his departure will likely mean ripples felt far beyond the Sunshine State. Additionally, Florida has become something of a bellwether when it comes to controversial initiatives like third-grade retention, based largely on new measures and demands implemented by former Gov. Jeb Bush during his tenure. (Some researchers have suggested the claims of improvement in student achievement were oversold.)  Bennett said Thursday he was resigning so as not to distract from Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s education initiatives.

“It’s not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with the distraction,” Bennett said during a press conference. “I end my tenure with my head held high.”

Scott Elliott, education reform reporter for the Indianapolis Star, provided some context on the emails obtained by the Associated Press which provided the backbone to the investigation. He also had a followup with more about Christel House, and how Bennett’s formula might have helped two other schools that received failing grades under Indiana’s accountability system during his tenure.

Mike Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank in Washington, D.C.,  suggested avoiding a “rush to judgment.”  From Petrilli’s Education Gadfly blog:

“[Bennett] had spent months (and much political capital) building an A–F accountability system for Indiana’s schools. These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.”

The New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop wasn’t buying it in her blog post from Thursday morning ahead of the resignation announcement:

“In truth, Christel House was never evaluated on its poor high school performance. Instead, all of the high school data were thrown out – a little detail Bennett failed to mention.

These kinds of shenanigans are unacceptable and have chipped away at public faith in the legitimacy of school accountability systems over the last 10+ years of No Child Left Behind. Christel House’s grade is simply more false advertising from states and local districts that have a long history of finding loopholes in accountability systems and exploiting them.”

So what’s next for Florida? First off, the state will need to find a new education commissioner — its fourth in three years. Still looming are questions of whether Florida will stick with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two consortia set up to develop and facilitate testing under the new Common Core State Standards. A handful of states have dropped out of the consortium (Indiana’s governor sent a letter to the group Monday signaling his intentions to withdraw) citing concerns about the implementation timeline and cost. Also on Monday, a spokesman for Bennett told the Tampa Bay Times a decision hadn’t yet been made as to whether Florida would stick with PARCC, or drop it as some of the state’s lawmakers are urging.

Losing Florida would be a blow for PARCC and could further complicate matters for the states that stick with the coalition. As Education Week’s Catherine Gerwetz reported, because it’s the consortium’s current “fiscal agent (the key channel for procurement),” Florida dropping out “could exert a more potent influence on public perceptions of the group than losing another state.”

It’s worth noting that the rules governing the consortium allows the duties of the designated fiscal agent to shift to another state, and PARCC officials say the group is on firm footing despite the recent departures. But it’s also hard to imagine it wouldn’t sting to have Florida walk away