August 1, 2013

Florida's education chief resigns amid grading scandal

Tony Bennett faces allegations he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican Party donor.

The Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s education commissioner resigned Thursday, fueling controversy over the school grading system and delivering a blow to Gov. Rick Scott and the state leaders working to overhaul the state’s system of school accountability.

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Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett announces his resignation at a news conference on Thursday in Tallahassee. The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida's grading system.

AP

Coming to Florida in January from Indiana, Tony Bennett had faced mounting calls for his resignation this week after revelations that he intervened in the grading system in Indiana to benefit a charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor.

On Thursday, Bennett said he was leaving his post to avoid becoming a “distraction.”

“The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children,” Bennett said.

He called the news reports, first published by The Associated Press, “malicious and unfounded” and suggested information had been “leaked to the press” to damage him politically.

“I end my tenure with my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education,” he said.

State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand has recommended K-12 Chancellor Pam Stewart serve as interim commissioner. The board is expected to approve the appointment in an emergency conference call Friday.

Bennett’s resignation comes at a particularly difficult time for the state education department, which is facing a narrow window to adopt new national standards known as the Common Core and the accompanying exams. The move has drawn intense opposition from tea party leaders who say standards should be determined at the local level.

At the same time, Florida’s own school grading system has come under fire from superintendents, union leaders and parent groups — even as it is touted as a national model.

“The actions of former Commissioner Bennett in Indiana only served to further undermine the shaky trust Florida parents have in the school grading system here,” said parent activist Colleen Wood, whose nonprofit organization 50th No More has called for a moratorium on letter grades for schools.

Stability has also been an issue. The education department has three education commissioners and two interim ones during Scott’s 31 months in office.

“The revolving door of education has to stop,” Broward School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson said. “We need stability and somebody who is a proponent and advocate with the Legislature for public education.”

Bennett was recruited to Florida late last year to provide steady leadership after the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

He encountered some bumps in June, when superintendents leaned on him to institute a “safety net” to prevent school grades from crashing in light of new, more challenging state exams. Despite initial misgivings, Bennett ultimately conceded.

The exercise sparked a statewide dialogue that left some superintendents, parents and members of the state education board questioning whether school grades were valid or even necessary.

Amid the controversy, scathing emails published by the AP showed that Bennett had made changes to the school grading formula in Indiana after learning that a high-profile charter school would be awarded a “C” grade.

Bennett denied that the changes, which boosted Christel House’s grade to an “A,” were motivated by politics.

“It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of school based on a political donor, or based on trying to hide a school from accountability,” Bennett told reporters Tuesday. “What we did do is make sure we were getting a transparent policy right for Indiana schools and Indiana schoolchildren.”

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