TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's education commissioner resigned Thursday amid allegations that he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana's school chief.
Tony Bennett announced his immediate resignation at a news conference, saying that he while he did nothing wrong he didn't want to be a distraction to Gov. Rick Scott's efforts to overhaul Florida's education system. Emails published by The Associated Press this week show that Bennett and his Indiana staff scrambled last fall to ensure Christel DeHaan's school received an A, despite poor 10th-grade algebra scores that initially earned it a C.
Bennett called that interpretation "malicious and unfounded" and said he would call for Indiana's inspector general to look into the allegations because he is certain he will be cleared of wrongdoing.
He said it would be unfair to Scott "to have to spend my time and the State Board (of Education's) time, as things continue to trickle out, defending myself." He called the allegations "politically motivated." Scott cited Bennett's accomplishments while he worked in Florida, but didn't say whether he believed the allegations.
Bennett lost his re-election bid last November in Indiana. He was hired by Florida as its education commissioner, a nonelected post, in December.
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. A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he fired off a Sept. 12 email to his chief of staff.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as the state's education commissioner, denied that DeHaan's Christel House Academy school received special treatment. He said discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.
Bennett downplayed the emails, repeating his assertion that he took action because he was concerned there was a flaw in the formula.
"It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of a school based on a political donor or trying to hide schools from accountability," Bennett said. "That's fictitious at best, and it's totally unfounded."
He acknowledged that the problem was identified and fixed prior to the release of school grades but maintained the change affected as many as 13 schools.
"We did nothing wrong. We did nothing covert. We did nothing secretive," Bennett said.
The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida's grading system.
Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.
That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. Bennett's plan was even opposed by the education foundation set up by Bush. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.
Scott said Pam Stewart would be recommended as the interim education commissioner.
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