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Tony Bennett Resigns From Top Education Job In Florida

With family members looking on tearfully, Republican state superintendent Tony Bennett concedes the race for the state's top school official to Democrat Glenda Ritz.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana (File)

With family members looking on tearfully, Republican state superintendent Tony Bennett concedes the race for the state's top school official to Democrat Glenda Ritz in November 2012. Reports indicate Bennett will resign Thursday.

UPDATED, 11:25 a.m. — Tony Bennett, Indiana’s former state superintendent and national figure in education policy, has resigned his current post as Florida Education Commissioner after less than eight months on the job. He told reporters Thursday:

Because I don’t believe we will be distracted, I made the decision, despite the malicious unfounded reports out of Indiana that it was not fair of Gov. Scott in his pursuit of very hard work in making Florida the greatest state in the country, didn’t think it was fair to a State Board of Education… I don’t think it’s fair to the incredible superintendents I’ve had the opportunity to work with, I don’t think it’s fair to the outstanding teachers… I don’t think it’s fair to the incredible employees in this department, but most of all it’s not fair to the children that I continue as Commissioner.

An Associated Press story on Monday showed Bennett, an outspoken proponent for school choice and for using student test scores to rate schools and teachers, had sent emails ordering changes to Indiana’s A-F school grading system in 2012 when it appeared a favorite Indianapolis charter school would get a C.

Christel House Academy — remarkable for posting ISTEP+ pass rates above most schools with high-poverty student populations — is also the namesake of Christel DeHaan, a donor to Bennett’s re-election campaign.

In a press conference in Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, Bennett said he would request Indiana’s Inspector General open an investigation into his department’s 2012 grades.

“That way we can put this issue to rest,” Bennett said, adding he felt the e-mail leak overshadows increases in student test scores during his tenure.

In the week following the AP story, however, at least one right-leaning think tank called for Bennett’s to step aside and condemnations of his actions were quick to come.

“It’s time to call the Bennett school letter grade scandal exactly what it is — cheating,” wrote Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association in an op-ed.

A screenshot from Florida's public affairs television channel showing Tony Bennett, former Indiana state superintendent, resigning from Florida's top education post Thursday.

Screenshot / The Florida Channel

A screenshot from Florida's public affairs television channel showing Tony Bennett, former Indiana state superintendent, resigning from Florida's top education post Thursday.

But a defense for Bennett emerged Wednesday. Some education policy watchers argued Bennett’s emails amounted to a regrettable lack of transparency, not a scandal.

Bennett himself defended the department’s actions in an interview with StateImpact Indiana‘s Elle Moxley on Monday:

Tindley, Signature, Herron and Christel House — I made many comments that by any measure those would be four A schools…

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. 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…

[The changes to the grading system] 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.

UPDATE TWO, 5:55 p.m. — Christel DeHaan, the founder of Christel House Academy, issued this written statement:

It is unfortunate that his actions relating to changing the grade given to 12 Indiana schools, including Christel House, may distract from the significant progress that has been made in Indiana.

Neither I nor anyone connected with Christel House made any request to have any grade changed.  I was as surprised as anyone when I was contacted late in the morning of July 29th for a reaction to a soon-to-be-published Associated Press Story…

I endorse the call of many public officials of both political parties for a thorough review of the grades given to schools in 2012 and revisions made if they are inaccurate.

This story may be updated.

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