Tony Bennett, who was appointed Florida's top education official in December, denies any wrongdoing. He says the changes to Indiana's grading formula weren't solely directed at Christel House Academy. But emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan's school received an "A," despite poor 10th grade algebra scores that initially earned it a "C."
Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute in Boston, said Bennett needs to resign his Florida position for violating the trust of Indiana students and parents.
"All you have as an official is your credibility. And that people trust you to do the right thing," Stergios told The Associated Press. "He has been entrusted with the hopes of parents and the aspirations of children. That's a sacred trust."
But in Florida, at least one member of the State Board of Education, which hired Bennett, said she remains confident in the job he is doing.
"If true, it is troubling," said Sally Bradshaw, a board member and former chief of staff under former Gov. Jeb Bush. "But Florida has had to adjust our own school grading system to ensure that the grading formula is applied uniformly, and my sense is that that may be what happened in Indiana in this case."
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.
After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he fired off a Sept. 12 email to his chief of staff.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."
Ritz, a Democrat who defeated Bennett in his re-election bid last November, said the department also will work to create a new accountability system based on individual student academic performance and growth.
"Accountability only works when the people making decisions are both fair and transparent," she said in a statement.
Republican Senate Pro Tem David Long called for annual third-party audits of the A-F grades to restore public confidence in the ratings.
"The big issue is the fact that it would appear one or more school's grade was manipulated. That's completely unacceptable," Long said. "The system has to be one that all the schools, parents and kids can count on as being fair and impartial. If there's one thing that can't be allowed, it's that any school grades can ever be allowed to be manipulated again."
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as that state's education commissioner, denied that DeHaan's Christel House Academy school received special treatment. He said discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.
Bennett downplayed the emails on Tuesday, repeating his assertion that he took action because he was concerned there was a flaw in the formula.
"It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of a school based on a political donor or trying to hide schools from accountability," Bennett said. "That's fictitious at best and it's totally unfounded."
He acknowledged that the problem was identified and fixed prior to the release of school grades but maintained the change affected as many as 13 schools.
"We did nothing wrong. We did nothing covert. We did nothing secretive," Bennett said.
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.
Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.
That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. Bennett's plan was even opposed by the education foundation set up by Bush. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.