Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Bennett Stands By Decision To Boost Indy Charter School's Grade

    Outgoing Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett starts his new job as Florida Commissioner of Education Monday.

    WFIU/WTIU News

    Former state superintendent Tony Bennett — now Florida Commissioner of Education — says he stands by the decision to tweak the state's accountability system after an Indianapolis charter school he often praised received a C.

    Former State Superintendent Tony Bennett says he believes his department was right to change the letter grade of a charter school that initially received a C under the state’s accountability system.

    On Monday the Associated Press released emails from 2012 showing Bennett asked his staff to make sure Christel House in Indianapolis received an A from the state.

    But Bennett, now Florida Commissioner of Education, defended his actions, saying Christel House is one of four charter schools widely recognized as the best in Indiana.

    “Tindley, Signature, Herron and Christel House — I made many comments that by any measure those would be four A schools,” Bennett told StateImpact Indiana.

    Bennett says his department ran into problems when initial calculations indicated the school would receive a C under the statewide accountability system, which didn’t sit well with the then-superintendent.

    “So when we looked at our data and saw that three of those schools were A’s and Christel House was not, that told me that there was a nuance in our data,” says Bennett. “Frankly, my emails portrayed correctly my frustrations with the fact that there was a nuance in the system that did not lend itself to face validity.”

    At issue were the school’s low scores on statewide algebra tests. Bennett says the problem stemmed from how combined schools — that is, those that include multiple grade levels — are counted under the state’s accountability system. He says the tweaks his department made benefited a number of schools, not just Christel House, which is run by a prominent Republican donor.

    Christel House did not return calls for comment.

    “We wanted a system that passed the face validity test, and the face validity test is that there are schools that are A schools and they should obviously be that,” says Bennett.

    But he rejects the idea that last-minute tweaks to the A-F accountability happened behind closed doors:

    It did happen in a public arena. It clearly did happen in a public arena. We included the architect from the Colorado Growth Model, we included the Chamber of Commerce, we included charter schools. Don’t forget we took a lot of input over the A-F system. The public school superintendents gave us ideas on how to improve the system that we incorporated. So the whole process was a public-iterated process. We believe we had the concept right, but frankly there were some nuances to the system that we had to address.  We did it, but I would argue that there wasn’t anything secretive about any of this.

    Bennett, who lost his re-election bid in November, says no one ever accused his department of being secretive. He says the changes were made to ensure that Christel House, which he repeatedly called an A school, would receive top marks from the state.


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