A school grading flap in Indiana is drawing calls for Florida’s education chief, Tony Bennett, to resign.
As the elected chief of Indiana schools, Bennett “frantically overhauled” the school-grading system last year when it looked like one of his political contributors’ charter schools might get a C, The Associated Press reported this week. Bennett termed the allegation “absurd.”
On Wednesday, state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, called for Bennett’s resignation, saying there is “blood in the water” thanks to Indiana grading scandal.
“It’s time for (Gov. Rick Scott) to accept another resignation,” Pafford said Wednesday morning in a teleconference with Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. Pafford added that Scott needs to “wipe the chalkboard clean and start again.”
Gov. Scott has been silent regarding Bennett’s future.
In a conference call Tuesday, Bennett said it was “absurd” to believe he inflated grades to help Christel DeHann because of her political contributions. Instead, Bennett said, the Christel House school’s grade raised legitimate concerns about the grading system in Indiana, which was using a new way of ranking schools in 2012.
While The AP reported that the emails it obtained pointed to algebra results as part of the problem, Bennett said education officials figured out it was largely because Christel House’s high school and 12 others hadn’t yet added an 11th or 12th grade.
“That calculation unfairly penalized those 13 schools,” Bennett said during the 40-minute conference call. “We found that and we fixed that in order to give a true, transparent grading model for Indiana schools.”
In an email quoted by The AP, Bennett seemed particularly concerned with the fate of DeHann’s school.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote.
The questions come weeks after Bennett recommended keeping schools in Florida from dropping more than one letter grade on report cards issued this month, a continuation of a policy passed by the state board last year, before Bennett was on the job. Several local superintendents asked for that policy to be continued in 2013.
That policy change helped, but did not fully stymie a drop in school grades. The turmoil over school grades also has raised questions about the validity of Florida’s assessment system.
Bennett came to Florida in December after losing his bid for re-election in Indiana. He replaced Gerard Robinson, who abruptly resigned amid heavy criticism over Florida’s testing and grading system.
Bennett received $130,000 in contributions from DeHann, who gave $2.8 million to Republicans over the last 15 years, The Associated Press reported.
Several supporters rallied to Bennett’s side Tuesday, including former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.
“Commissioner Bennett and his department found and corrected a mistake that would have unfairly penalized 13 schools missing data for grades they did not even serve,” said Patricia Levesque, the foundation’s executive director, in a statement. “They fixed a problem to be accurate and fair — any accusation otherwise is false and politically (motivated).”
But backlash against Bennett appears to be growing. On Wednesday, a new Facebook page titled “Dump Bennett” had garnered 87 “likes” in about two hours.
Cruz on Wednesday questioned whether Bennett “brought his pay-to-play tactics from Indiana to Florida” and said a review needs to be done on Florida’s school grades to ensure fairness and make sure “the game wasn’t different” for charter schools.
“The matter at hand here is, how can we trust Florida school grades at the hands of Tony Bennett?” she said.
Pafford tried to tie Bennett to Scott, even though it was technically the State Board of Education who chose Bennett in December.
“You’re not governor without approving these types of things,” Pafford said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s an extension of the governor.”
Meanwhile, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant issued a statement Wednesday blasting Bennett.
“Floridians deserve answers,” Tant said. “Is Bennett up to his usual tricks, doing favors for GOP donors? How can we trust Florida’s school grades — already the product of political manipulation — with Tony Bennett in charge?”
The Associated Press and the News Service of Florida contributed to this story.