An investigation shows Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett compromised one of his reforms for a prominent Republican donor in Indiana. (Photo by Maine Department of Education.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

An investigation by the Associated Press found that Tony Bennett, Florida’s Education Commissioner and the former Indiana Schools superintendent, bent his own rules and changed the school grade for an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor.

Bennett, a tough school reformer, created a rigorous grading system for schools in Indiana. It was part of his agenda to make schools more accountable and improve the overall quality of the school system.

However, the AP reports Bennett changed his grading system when it looked like one particular school wouldn’t fare as well as he would have liked.

According to the AP:

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 test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”

“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.

Bennett told the AP that he didn’t give the Christel House any special treatment. He said he had to give the charter school a better grade in order to “make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid.”

However, the AP reports “the emails clearly show Bennett’s staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.”

DeHaan was also a big donor to Republican school choice political groups, including some with former Florida governor-turned school choice activist Jeb Bush. These groups helped lift Bennett into prominence among other school reformers.

Bennett told The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald that “Christel House was among the top-performing charter schools in Indiana.”

“If it hadn’t earned an A, that meant something was wrong with the entire grading system, he said.

“It had nothing to do with politics,” he said.

Bennett said that Indiana was in the midst of finalizing its school grading formula when the email exchange took place. He said he had hoped to use high-performing schools like Christel House to calibrate the system.

“We needed to make sure the school grades reflected how the schools really performed,” he said.

The Times/Herald also reports that this AP story comes at a very difficult time for Bennett. He recently persuaded Florida’s Board of Education to protect schools from getting low grades under a new grading system, which has been controversial among reformers who want to see the state’s schools held accountable for their performance.

The AP reports that there was a “weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble” among top officials at Indian’s Department of Education to change Christel House’s grade. The AP says they can’t tell exactly how many times they changed the grading system to make sure the charter school got a better grade, but the school’s score did change more than once over the course of that time.