Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett said the state of Florida “doesn’t have time to waste” when he resigned Thursday, following controversy over school grading during his stint as Indiana’s state superintendent.
“The issue of education reform is very important,” Bennett said in a press conference Thursday. “The pursuit of that plan is the most important pursuit that the government of Florida has in front of it. And I don’t think anything should distract us from that plan. Because I don’t believe we should be distracted, I made a decision today that it was not fair…that I continue as commissioner.”
Bennett, who moved to Florida in January after losing his re-election bid in the Hoosier state, faced mounting calls for his resignation in the wake of allegations that he changed the grade for an Indiana charter school run by prominent Republican Party donor, Christel DeHaan.
Emails obtained and published by the Associated Press earlier this week showed Bennett and his Indiana staff working last fall to change the state’s A-F school grade formula, to ensure DeHaan’s school, Christel House Academy, received an “A.” According to the exchange, poor 10th grade algebra scores had initially earned the school a “C.”
“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote to staff in the emails, upon learning that Christel House was not meeting his expectations. “Anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work. We may well lose [Indiana gubernatorial candidate] Pence on this as well.”
Calls made to Christel House seeking comment have gone unreturned.
Almost immediately after allegations had surfaced, numerous individuals and groups including the Florida Tenth Amendment Center began calling for Bennett’s immediate dismissal from his post.
Bennett defended his actions in Indiana, explaining that the action he and his staff took was completely reasonable.
“What we did in Indiana was very simple – we found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools to have their grade truly reflect their performance,” Bennett explained. “That wasn’t rigging anything. Our grades went back and forth to the schools, they knew what we were looking at.”
“I believe we did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children.”
Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who worked with Bennett during his tenure, was unavailable for comment.
Bennett’s successor will be the sixth person to fill the position as Education Commissioner under Florida Governor Rick Scott. Pam Stewart, current Florida DOE Chancellor, has been names as a possible choice for interim commissioner in Bennett’s absence.
Bennett added his opinion that government should stop getting personal, and simply debate policy.
“The most important thing we have to do is educate children,” Bennett said. “Maybe what we ought to do is debate how the best way to do that is without being personal and assigning motives to it.”
The Indiana Department of Education and current Superintendent Glenda Ritz are not commenting on Bennett’s resignation.
Tony Bennett says he is resigning from his post in Florida after less than eight months on the job. Our StateImpact Indiana colleague Kyle Stokes picks up the story there.
The Associated Press is reporting Tony Bennett will resign his position this morning as Florida Education Commissioner. A source told the AP‘s Gary Fineout:
“Bennett will resign because of the scandal surrounding Christel House Academy, an Indiana charter school run by a major Republican donor.”
Bennett lost his re-election bid in November and assumed the Florida post in December.
Bennett has faced mounting pressure to resign since the AP released a report this week with e-mails showing how Bennett scrambled to change Christel House’s letter grade when it was clear the school would receive a C. Christel House is operated by influential Republican, Christel DeHaan.
Bennett told our colleague Elle Moxley at StateImpact Indiana this week, that he stood by his decision to change the school’s grade.
Sara Wittmeyer contributed to this report.