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IPS questions school takeovers after Bennett grade change scandal

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Officials with Indianapolis Public Schools want to see records regarding the 2011 state takeover of four schools, the latest fallout from the scandal surrounding former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the validity of the state’s A-F accountability system.

Email records showed Bennett and his staff altered the A-F grading system to benefit Christel House Academy after the charter school received a less than desirable grade.

This week, IPS submitted public records requests to both the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Education for documents related to the state’s decision to award “F” grades to four IPS schools. The state decided to take over those schools: Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual, Arlington and Howe high schools.

Three of those schools are currently being operated by Charter Schools USA, a company that now employs Tony Bennett’s wife, Tina.

IPS Board of School Commissioners’ President Diane Arnold said the circumstances leading up to the state takeover warrant another look.

“We want accountability,” Arnold said. “We just want to make sure that the rules are fair, because it is an important issue.”

At the heart of the issue: whether scores for different grade levels should be combined or, in some cases, separated. That’s part of the reason why grades were apparently changed for some local charter schools. But IPS officials wonder if their schools would have been taken over in the first place if Bennett had made the same changes for them.

“It’s puzzling that we made the same request the year before and I believe the response from Dr. Bennett was that he would absolutely not compromise the integrity of the accountability system to give our schools a different score,” said Arnold. “But indeed it does appear that might have been what happened the next year, so it does make one wonder.”

Gov. Mike Pence also spoke about the controversy Thursday, before the announcement by IPS. Pence was asked whether the state’s A-F grading system was worth continuing, given the growing concerns being voiced by school officials around the state.

“School accountability is extremely important,” said Pence. “We give our kids letter grades every day, we need to give our schools letter grades every year. That kind of accountability is extremely important, but it’s extremely important that the people of Indiana have confidence in that system.”

Pence said the system does need tweaking, so that both growth and achievement are represented in the grades. State lawmakers had already called for a review of the state’s A-F grading system prior to the controversy involving Bennett, who has since resigned from his latest post as Florida’s education commissioner.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of the accusations that have been raised,” said Pence. “I’m confident this review will get the questions answered.”

The Department of Education declined to comment Thursday.

Fox 59 did receive this statement from Charter Schools USA regarding Tina Bennett’s employment:

“CSUSA has hired 1000 people in the last 90 days given our growth across the country.  We are still hiring and in search of highly qualified educators. One of the 1000 people hired in the last 45 days was Tina Bennett. She was hired on June 16, 2013 as the regional director in Louisiana. Tina applied online and went through our extensive Leadership Assessment Center which includes several interviews and reviews. Tina proved to be a highly qualified candidate with a 25 year track record of success in education. In addition, Tina shares the same educational philosophy and commitment to student achievement and educational reform as CSUSA.  We were sensitive to potential perceptions and carefully considered this during the hiring process which is why Tina’s responsibilities are limited to our schools in Louisiana. Based upon her professional qualifications and achievements, we stand behind our decision to hire Tina.”

— Sherry Hage, Chief Academic Officer of CSUSA

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