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Bennett emails reveal drive to change grading system

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Thursday morning, Tony Bennett resigned as the leader of Florida’s education system, saying a scandal in Indiana was too much of a distraction for education reformers in the state.

Earlier this week, an Associated Press report disclosed that Bennett and his staff worked feverishly to alter Indiana’s school grading formula so that Christel House Academy, a charter school, would receive an “A” rating. The scramble to change the system came after Bennett learned that algebra scores had dragged the school down.

That posed a problem for Bennett, the former superintendent of public instruction who championed school reforms in Indiana and upheld Christel House as a success story. The school is run by Christel DeHaan, a prominent Republican donor and supporter of charter schools.

Fox 59 obtained Bennett’s emails on the matter through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails outline Bennett’s and his staff’s drive to ensure that Christel House Academy received an “A” grade instead of a “C” to salvage the school’s reputation–and Bennett’s own.

While resigning Thursday, Bennett maintained that he and his staff identified a “statistical anomaly” affecting Christel House and a dozen other schools. But emails obtained by Fox 59 show Bennett was single-minded in his focus on Christel House.

“When will we see the rest? I am anxious to see the grade for Christel House,” Bennett wrote his staff in an email September 9, 2012, as he became aware that the south side charter school was in danger of receiving a mediocre grade.

“They will be for sure at least a B,” aide Jon Gubera wrote back. “Their terrible 10th grade Algebra results (33%) was the principal factor in earning a C grade.”

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote back on September 12th.

The next day, the then-superintendent wrote, “I cannot count the number of times (Bennett met with state lawmakers) when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school.”

“I either lied or twisted the truth in order to get what we wanted,” he wrote, adding that he was worried opponents would use the results as ammunition against him.

“Critics…are going to use this against us to undo our accountability metrics through legislation.”

He added, “I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions…for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past 6 months.”

Rick Muir of AFT Indiana called for the suspension of the A-F grading system education officials use to assess the success of Indiana charter schools.

“I stand before you thrilled that the truth is coming out not just about Tony Bennett,” Muir told reporters at the statehouse. “I guess the only regret I have about Tony Bennett being caught and resigning in Florida would be that he wasn’t caught four years ago.”

Teresa Meredith spent her first day on the job as the new president of the Indiana State Teachers Association calling for a review of the way Indiana measures success in charter schools.

“This isn’t just about something that changed a grade for a few schools,” she said. “This had significant impact on the schools that were changed.

“We just didn’t fully trust him and now when you hear the kinds of things that we’re hearing and you see the emails that are out there it seems to affirm what we felt all along that things just weren’t quite what they thought they would be.”

Gov. Mike Pence has called for a review of the grading system.

Read email exchanges with Tony Bennett and staff

Tony Bennett’s resignation letter to Florida Department of Education