POLITICS
08/01/2013 09:34 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Tony Bennett, Florida Education Commissioner, Resigns Over Indiana Grading Scandal

Less than eight months after starting his job, Florida's education commissioner Tony Bennett resigned on Thursday, amid a growing scandal over policy changes he made while serving as schools superintendent in Indiana.

"I asked Governor Scott to accept my resignation, and he did," Bennett said during a press conference.

Bennett's plans to resign were first reported by the Tampa Bay Times. He has faced increasing pressure to step down since the Associated Press published emails on Monday showing that he quietly changed Indiana's school grading formula. The emails show that the formula change happened when Christel House Academy, a charter school backed by influential Republican donors, received a low grade under the original formula.

Since the AP story was published, Bennett has defended himself by saying that the grading formula unfairly dinged Christel House and some other schools for not having traditional grade structures. Christel House didn't offer classes to high school juniors and seniors, he said, so "the data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero."

But an analysis by New America Foundation's education expert Anne Hyslop claimed that Bennett's defense "doesn't add up." "In truth, Christel House was never evaluated on its poor high school performance," Hyslop wrote. "Instead, all of the high school data were thrown out – a little detail Bennett failed to mention."

Bennett said Thursday he stood by everything contained in the emails. When devising Indiana's grading system, he said, he expected "top-performing charter schools" to be rewarded for their performance, but "that didn't happen."

"We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools -- there's been a focus on one school -- but did not allow 13 schools to have their grades truly reflect their performance, and they were unfairly penalized. That wasn't rigging anything," Bennett said. "We did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children."

Bennett said he first heard the emails had surfaced as he was boarding a plane, and after a week of many conversations, decided Wednesday night he would resign. He said he was stepping down to avoid becoming a "distraction," and called the reports coming out of Indiana "malicious" and "unfounded."

Florida has been among the fastest states to adopt changes favored by education reformers, from school report cards to radical changes to teacher evaluations and tenure. Some reformers worry that Bennett's resignation could set the state back as it tries to implement Common Core State Standards and grapples with a new wave of standardized testing tied to the core.

The loss will also be a setback for Gov. Rick Scott (R), who appointed Bennett after he lost reelection in Indiana and has supported his reforms. After the allegations surfaced, Scott praised Bennett, telling reporters he was "doing a great job."

His most recent move was to change Florida's school grading formula, but he did so publicly. "The Board adopted a recommendation requested by many of Florida's district superintendents that implements a rule that stipulates no individual school’s grade will drop more than one letter grade in any one year until the state’s transition to the Common Core standards is complete," a July 16 Florida Department of Education memo read.

Bennett, a Republican, has become a prominent figure in national education reform circles. In Indiana, he created the nation's largest school voucher program and devised the school-grading scheme. His work caught the eye of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who includes him in his selective education reform group, Chiefs for Change.

Bush has also expressed his confidence in Bennett since news of the scandal broke.

Bennett said Thursday he had been in contact with Bush, who said he thought Bennett should stay in office.

"Tony started every day with the focus of creating a system that would equip kids to achieve their God-given potential,” Bush, who now chairs the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement following Bennett's resignation. "Today, more Hoosier kids are graduating high school ready for college or a career and fewer are dropping out. Last year, the parents of nearly 10,000 children in low-income homes were able to select the school that best fit their son or daughter. Leadership is doing what is right, knowing the results will follow. The data is clear; thanks to Tony’s leadership children are better prepared for success."

The resignation will leave Florida without a schools chief for the second time in one year. Bennett's predecessor Gerard Robinson resigned shortly after he started, amid intense criticism over standardized testing and school accountability. Education expert Andy Smarick noted that the state has gone through five commissioners "in short order."

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said the latest resignation "is not good news" for Florida. "If anything good comes of it, I do hope that on the school accountability front, it provides the opportunity for us to have a more public conversation about what's behind these school grades," he said.

After the grade-changing allegations were first published, Bennett responded by saying the changes were only technical and gave no indication that he would step down. Supporters lined up behind him, which makes Thursday's news surprising.

Some sources think Bennett's decision to step down is a sign that there are even more incriminating emails that have not yet surfaced. "The rumor is that there are more emails coming," Petrilli said. "I don't know if it's on this topic or on other topics, but there may be more revelations."

When asked whether further emails would trickle out, Bennett said, "I don't know." He added, "I do not believe that Gov. Scott ... should have to spend our time, if things do continue to trickle out, defending.

Rick Hess, of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, believes Bennett has faced pressure from both political opponents in the state legislature and Scott's staff. "Maybe Scott's people decided that the governor's poll numbers are weak enough already and they didn't want this one to linger," he said.

It can't help Bennett, he added, that the news comes amid a fierce fight among Florida Republicans over the Common Core. Two weeks ago, Florida's Senate majority leader and House Speaker wrote a letter to Bennett saying that the state should drop out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a federally funded consortium that is developing new exams for the Common Core.

"For the Tea Party wing of the Republican party, the Common Core is far and away their most pressing concern when it comes to schooling," Hess said.

Hess and Smarick predicted Bennett's resignation could accelerate Florida's exit from the consortium. "States that have made great progress have had great continuity in leadership and adherence to a reform agenda," Smarick said. "Now we have to wonder who's going to be next in Florida and can they build a long-term strategy."

UPDATE: 1:30 p.m. -- Florida Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartbrand praised Bennett in a statement, and said he will recommend that K-12 Chancellor Pam Stewart be appointed in his stead:

Tony demonstrated great leadership transitioning Florida to new state standards – and he worked tirelessly during his tenure to provide students and teachers with the tools they needed to succeed. I thank him for his hard work and the support that he and Governor Scott have provided to educators and students across the state. In order to continue the success that Tony facilitated, it is my intention to convene a State Board of Education call tomorrow to recommend that the board appoint our K-12 Chancellor Pam Stewart as Interim Commissioner.

Meanwhile, Indiana's teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling for an investigation into the state's school grading system. The union wants "a moratorium on further school grading until everyone is satisfied that the system and whatever consequences and/or support ensue can be administered fairly," according to an email blast.

Read Bennett's resignation letter here.

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