Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett Resigns Amid Grading Controversy

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigns amid controversy. (Photo via MainDOE)

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigns amid controversy. (Photo via MainDOE)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Tony Bennett, Florida’s Education Commissioner, has resigned following news that he changed his own policies while running Indiana’s schools to accommodate a better grade for a school run by a political donor.

The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported Bennett said in a Thursday morning press conference that his resignation is effective immediately.

“The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children,” Bennett said.

… Bennett said Thursday, “I end my tenure withi my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education.”

His departure could prove problematic for the already unstable education department.

He had brought several people from Indiana, who now hold top jobs in Florida, including Chief of Staff Dale Chu, Deputy Commissioner Will Krebs and Common Core liaison Anna Shults. Chu and Krebs were involved in the emails published by the AP. Observers are questioning whether they should stay in Florida.

Bennett began his position at the Florida Department of Education in January. He is Florida’s third commissioner in as many years.

Bennett, a tough school reformer, created a rigorous grading system Indiana schools while he was the superintendent there. The grading policy was part of his agenda to hold schools accountable and improve the overall quality of the school system in Indiana.

However, the AP reported last week that Bennett changed his grading system over the course of a week when it looked like one particular school, which was run by a prominent donor to the GOP and school choice advocacy groups, was not going to fare as well as he would have liked.

According to the AP’s investigation:

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 maintained that he did not give the Christel House any special treatment. He told the AP that 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.”

DeHaan, who founded Christel House, gave “more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders,” the AP reported.

Since news broke of Bennett’s dealing in Indiana, some Democrats in the Florida Legislature had been calling for his resignation.

The Orlando Sentinel reported on Wednesday that  state Reps. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, asked Bennett to step aside.

“We need someone whose credibility is not in question,” Cruz said. “The credibility of Florida’s grading system is in shreds. Floridians need to know that that game is not different here for charter schools, and that’s what worries me.”

Pafford said it’s time to “wipe the slate clean.”

“This is a public education issue,” he said. “All these kids need to have a system that’s not based on partisan rhetoric.”

However, many other members of the Legislature — including some Democrats– stood by Bennett.

As Steve Bousquet at the Times/Herald also reported,

[Bennett’s] resignation will be a major setback for Gov. Rick Scott and state education leaders, who are working to overhaul Florida’s system of school accountability and assessment in compliance with the national Common Core standards.

Bennett came to the job in January after losing his re-election bid as Indiana superintendent of schools. He was the third permanent commissioner in Scott’ 31-month tenure, following Eric Smith (who Scott pushed out) and Gerard Robinson (who resigned under pressure). Two interim commissioners — John Winn and Pam Stewart -— also have run the department under Scott.

The past two times Florida has searched for a commissioner to run what many consider one of the nation’s leading education “reform” and accountability states, the pickings have been slim. Bennett only applied after losing re-election.

Bennett was already in hot water in the state for persuading the Florida’s Board of Education to protect schools from getting low grades under a new grading system.