Bennett: No pressure to change Indiana school's grade

Tony Bennett

Indiana's former superintendent of public instruction is defending himself against accusations that he used his position to change the grade of a local charter school run by an influential political supporter.

Emails sent by Tony Bennett and his staff show how they discussed raising the grades of Christel DeHaan's Christel House Academy despite poor test scores. Now top lawmakers are getting involved.

It is a stinging accusation: changing a grade to save face and accommodate a major Republican party donor. Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett authored an email on September 13th after learning that the Christel House Academy was not meeting his expectations.

Read the emails here.

"If you can't tell, I am more than a little miffed about this. I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months," said Bennett in an email.

The problem, as outlined earlier in the same memo, was that Superintendent Bennett had repeatedly held the Christel House Academy up as an A school but test results revealed it was actually doing C work.

"They need to understand" Superintendent Bennett wrote, "that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work. We may well lose [Indiana gubernatorial candidate Mike] Pence on this as well."

In a separate email, he said, "I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, The Chamber, Brian Bosma, David Long and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school I have repeatedly said to all of them that we checked their data and give the 162 day calculation we were certain they are an A here we are and they are not an A school."

"The public has been misled," said Rep. Terri Austin (D-Anderson).

Rep. Austin says there should be a moratorium on the takeover of under-performing schools until an investigation is complete.

"What I hope happens out of this is that there is an investigation both through the governor's office and through the Department of Education to see how widespread this actually is. Are there other areas that have been compromised?" said Rep. Austin.

Vic Smith, a longtime public school advocate, was not convinced that lawmakers really embraced the current system anyway.

"They put in law we will have a new system by November 15th of this year. So the system was already considered flawed. Now we know how corrupt it was," said Smith.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz released a statement Tuesday saying there is an ongoing examination of the current A-F model to calculations to ensure that every school has the grade they earned in 2012 - nothing more, nothing less.

Bennett is currently head of Florida schools.

Academy founder Christel DeHaan has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett.
Bennett and DeHaan denied Monday that the academy received special treatment.
Bennett lost his Indiana job in November when voters ousted him in favor of Democrat Glenda Ritz. He was appointed Florida's education commissioner in December.

Ritz statement

Superintendent Glenda Ritz released the following statement about the report on Tuesday:

"As the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, I am committed to strengthening our school accountability system. However, accountability only works when the people making decisions are both fair and transparent. That is why I worked with the General Assembly to include language in a new state law that will allow us to create a stronger accountability system.

"Last year, A-F grades were delayed multiple times. I heard concerns from Hoosier educators about problems with the state's grading system. In my first public testimony as Superintendent, I spoke about the problems in our accountability system. Yesterday's report by the Associated Press demonstrates the seriousness of these problems.

"The Department of Education is doing two things: First, there is an ongoing thorough examination of the current A-F model calculations to ensure that every school has the grade they earned in 2012; nothing more, nothing less. Second, Indiana is creating a new accountability system that will be both fair and transparent based on individual student academic performance and growth. This ensures that all Hoosiers can know exactly how their school is truly performing and what they need to do to improve. I look forward to the State Board of Education's support as we improve our accountability system."

Read the emails here.