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Florida Schools Chief Cheated To Keep Large Donor Happy

Florida schools chief Tony Bennett pressured Indiana officials to change a state charter school grade from a "C" to an "A" in order to keep one large donor happy.

Before Tony Bennett was chief of Florida's schools, he served as Indiana's head education guy, making his name as a hard-liner when it came to holding schools accountable. Now a story is emerging of a guy who held some schools accountable, while changing the standards for one school in particular in order to see to it that one of his financial supporters wasn't at all offended by the average grade Indiana's evaluation process yielded that donor's charter school.

The AP reports that while Bennett was in Indiana, there was a mad scramble to make adjustments to state charter school accountability scores in order to keep donor Christel DeHaan in the fold.

"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.

Christel DeHaan has given millions to the Republican party, and Tony Bennett is not only a darling of education reformers, but also the head of the Jeb Bush Chiefs for Change group, which is pushing vouchers for public education across the country. Although Bennett denies that modifications to the state grading system were changed for Christel House, the emails are pretty clear on his concerns:

Bennett consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he secured support for the measure from business groups and lawmakers, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to Neal.

Neal fired back a few minutes later, "Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved."

By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a "C."

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a "C'' to an "A," including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high "B'' look like an "A'' and changing the grade just for Christel House.

This missive from Bennett seems particularly damning:

Bennett called the situation "very frustrating and disappointing" in an email that day.

"I am more than a little miffed about this," Bennett wrote. "I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months."

After these revelations, reformers have launched a monumental triage effort to downplay what can only seem to be cheating. An Indiana StudentsFirst staffer immediately suggested the story was planted by the current Superintendent of Schools, a Democrat.

In what might be the richest irony of all, reform apologist Michael Petrilli calls for cooler heads because politics:

As a former government official myself, the episode has triggered a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I know how reasonable and even principled actions of public officials can be spun to look malevolent in the hands of eager journalists and political enemies.

Oh my. Let that sink in for a minute.

Petrilli also drops this declaration into the mix:

The problem wasn’t the schools, it was the metric.

I take it he agrees with all of us who have been shouting about the whole testing regime imposed on students and how wrong the metrics are around them, then?

As UnitedForSchools notes, this isn't the first time policy has been shaped to please donors with financial interests in education:

Bennett, who helped establish Chiefs for Change with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, claims to support a tough, data-driven brand of “accountability” when it comes to public education. But this is not the first time that members of Chiefs for Change and related organizations have intervened to promote actions and policies that fail even by their own standards, yet directly benefit themselves and their funders.

For example, this past February, New Mexico Education Secretary and Chiefs for Change Chair Hanna Skandera overruled that state’s Public Education Commission to allow a for-profit online charter school company, Connections Academy, to enter the state. A series of e-mails released by In the Public Interest revealed numerous exchanges that showed members of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—an ALEC-affiliated organization which receivesdonations from several for-profit online school companies, including Connections Academy—lobbying school officials in New Mexico.

Despite the fact that online schools are less than half as likely to make adequate yearly progress as brick- and mortar public schools, Bush’s foundation alsolobbied to promote for-profit online schools in Maine, Florida, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Louisiana.

This is why public education must stay public. When officials act in the interests of political donors and billionaires, students are not their first consideration. Power is.

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