Educators disturbed by Bennett grade flap
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 July 31, 2013 1:22PM
Tony Bennett, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, speaks during the Gary Chamber of Commerce's Education Committee forum at Ivy Tech in Gary, Ind. Thursday July 11, 2012. | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: September 3, 2013 7:02AM
A year ago, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett stood before an audience at a Gary Chamber of Commerce meeting and defended his state takeover of Roosevelt High School, which is now being run by EdisonLearning Inc., an education management company.
EdisonLearning donated $1,000 to Bennett in 2009.
“We have to have the wisdom to say kids are first,” he told the crowd.
Now, local educators and lawmakers are questioning Bennett’s allegiance to children after an Associated Press story reported he orchestrated the changing of a letter grade for an influential charter school backer’s school in Indianapolis.
The report said donor Christel DeHaan’s Christel House charter received an “A” grade last year even though algebra test results merited the school a “C.” DeHaan has donated $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, the story said, including $130,000 to Bennett.
The story has intensified calls against the rapid education reforms championed by Bennett, former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-led legislature since 2011.
State Senate Pro Tem David Long called for an audit of the “A-F” grading system Tuesday.
Bennett, who was defeated by Glenda Ritz in the 2012 general election, now is Florida’s schools chief.
“I’m appalled by the whole situation,” said State Rep. Vernon Smith, a Gary Democrat who’s a member of the House Education Committee and a long-time Bennett critic.
“His system was flawed in the first place,” Smith said. “If it was so accurate and precise as he claimed it was, why would he need to change anyone’s grades? All schools should be held to the same standards.”
Smith said the report has made him doubt Bennett’s other initiatives, such as vouchers.
“He was on such a mission to privatize public education that I thought all the things he was doing were based on his mindset. What this demonstrates is he was for sale.”
Rod Gardin, superintendent of the East Porter County School Corp., said the revelations of score manipulating are disheartening to hard-working teachers and principals.
“How much validity does it give the system where so much depends on it,” Gardin said in reference to a 2011 Bennett-backed state law that ties teacher, principal and school evaluations to test scores.
“It’s not fair to our teachers and principals ... knowing ‘A-F’ would have an impact on their salaries. Now to find out there was manipulation to satisfy a large donor, it smells bad.”
In September 2011, Bennett met with Gary residents to explain his rationale for taking over low-performing Roosevelt and handing it to EdisonLearning, which had a troubled track record of its own. At that meeting, someone asked Bennett about the donation from EdisonLearning.
“Given the scope of the money that’s involved (in the state takeover), I would tell you that if all they gave me was $1,000, and they’re looking for a contract, I’m a pretty cheap date,” Bennett was quoted as saying to the audience.
State Board of Education member Tony Walker, of Gary, had no comment on the Bennett flap, saying he’s been out of town and wasn’t aware of the stories.
Gary School Board member Nellie Moore was familiar with them, though.
“We always felt politics was at the base,” Moore said of the Roosevelt takeover. “I feel this story basically confirms that we had a right to feel that it was not all above board.”
Moore said she hopes it will give Gary the “ammunition” it needs to go back to the State Board of Education and suggest it erred in giving the schools away to private management companies.