Bennett resigns Florida post, calls Indiana grade report ‘malicious, unfounded’

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Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has resigned as Florida’s commissioner of education.

In a Tallahassee news conference, Bennett blamed “malicious, unfounded reports” from “800 miles away” for forcing his resignation.

A statement by AFT Indiana refers to “emails obtained by the Associated Press…showing directly and clearly…Bennett and his staff worked last year to change the letter grade of an Indianapolis charter school supported by a prominent donor to Bennett’s political campaign and to others of his political party.”

That donor was GOP supporter Christel DeHaan, founder of Christel House Academy, a charter school on Indianapolis’ south side.

“The decision to resign is mine and mine only,” said Bennett after conferring with Florida Governor Rick Scott. He said the governor was supportive as soon as the Indiana grade story broke.

Bennett said he ended his seven-month-long Florida tenure “with my head held high” and said he would continue to champion school reform. He said he didn’t feel like it was fair for Florida’s education leaders, teachers and students to deal with the distraction brought on by the release of the emails.

“I don’t think (Florida officials) should have to continue to defend me,” Bennett said. “They don’t deserve to have to defend me.”

Bennett said Florida education reforms must continue even though he defended the change of grades for 13 charter schools in Indiana as “the right thing.”

“What we did in Indiana was simply (that) we found a statistical anomaly affecting 13 schools,” Bennett maintained.

During his meeting with reporters, Bennett said he will formally request for Indiana’s inspector general to probe the change in charter school grades in 2012 and that he is “fearless” in the face of any potential findings.

Indiana should be celebrating higher school grades, said Bennett, at exactly the same time he claims information was “leaked” regarding the effort to re-evaluate and change grades.

Bennett said he saw a politically motivated pattern in the release of the information.

“Just because I step away doesn’t mean I won’t defend the integrity of what I did in Indiana,” he said.

Reaction to Bennett’s resignation came swiftly from Indiana educators and lawmakers.

“The revelation of these emails has created zero confidence among public school educators,” reads a statement from Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith. “This manipulation of data is wrong and needs to be addressed by state leaders to ensure that a system is put in place that is fair to all and above reproach.”

Statehouse Democrats were quick to pounce on the allegations against the former state superintendent who was hired by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels to make state schools more accountable.

“The swath of this scandal is deep and wide,” read a statement from Indiana House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City. “The ‘A-F’ grading system …(is) about telling a story that someone wants to hear in order to make someone else’s political dreams come true. In Indiana, that dream has become a nightmare for many struggling traditional schools forced to compete against selected favorites.”

Pelath said he agrees with Republican Senate Pro Tempore David Long of Fort Wayne that an, “independent third party audit of Indiana’s school grading system,” is called for.

“Once again, public dissatisfaction with the closed-door policies and the rigging of the system by the past administration have resulted in the resignation of a public official,” wrote Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson.

“What’s clear is some high-level officials appeared more interested in picking winners than objectively evaluating school performance,” Lanane continued. “Regrettably…the corruption of the A-F grading system calls all other initiatives and agreements made by the previous administration into question.”

Fox 59 News has requested a comment from former Governor Mitch Daniels, currently the president of Purdue University.

Read email exchanges with Tony Bennett and staff

Tony Bennett’s resignation letter to Florida Department of Education