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Florida education chief Tony Bennett resigns over how a C became an A

Tony Bennett stepped down after reports that, while directing Indiana schools, he upped the grade of a charter school reportedly run by a major GOP donor. It's a blow to attempts to grade schools.

By Staff writer / August 1, 2013

Education commissioner Tony Bennett announces his resignation at a news conference on Thursday in Tallahassee, Fla. Mr. Bennett resigned amid allegations that he had changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana's school chief.

Steve Cannon/AP

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Less than a year into his tenure as Florida’s education commissioner, Tony Bennett resigned Thursday amid a controversy over adjustments he made to school grades last year as Indiana’s school chief.

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The Associated Press published e-mails this week suggesting Mr. Bennett tweaked a new A-F grading system in Indiana to favor a charter school run by a major Republican donor – giving it an A instead of the initial C. Bennett said in a press conference that the accusation was “malicious and unfounded” and that he hoped there would be an investigation, but that he was resigning to avoid distraction to Gov. Rick Scott’s education reform efforts in Florida.

Bennett has been a prominent member of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of reform-minded state school chiefs backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, which put out statements of support for him this week. As an outspoken promoter of a certain brand of accountability, Bennett’s supporters see him under attack by politically motivated opponents.

“The most important thing we ought to do is educate children,” Bennett said Thursday, adding that he wished complex education policies could be discussed “without getting personal or assigning motive.”

But the pressure for him to resign is just one example of people’s “growing concern that there is little or no honesty or integrity when measuring the performance of schools,” says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. There’s an “unrealistic” pressure on people to change public schools quickly, Ms. Ferguson adds. The public expects “some brave person to wave a sword,” but then that “can pressure human beings to do stupid things” to try to fulfill those expectations.

How schools are measured often has high stakes attached to it. In Indiana, the grades affect funding, determine if schools were taken over by the state, and have implications for whether students can seek private vouchers immediately or have to attend public school for a year first.

In one of Bennett’s e-mails last fall that was revealed this week, he wrote to his chief of staff after learning about Christel House charter school being likely to receive a bad grade: “This will be a HUGE problem for us…. They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.”

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