INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A school grading system designed to
hold Indiana schools accountable faced an uncertain future Thursday after
the state's former schools chief resigned as Florida's education
commissioner amid revelations his staff changed a grade for a top Republic
donor's charter school.
AFT Indiana, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, called
for an immediate suspension of the grading system, saying former
Superintendent Tony Bennett's "unethical and deplorable" actions made a
suspension necessary. School superintendents around the state said they
don't want an accountability system "connected to corruption and
manipulation." Gary Superintendent Cheryl L. Pruitt demanded the state
overturn its takeover of Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, saying
the grading system that led to the takeover was tainted.
"Bennett's resignation should confirm that Indiana's flawed, and now
manipulated, A-F grading system is evidence enough to call for immediate
suspension of this process," said Rick Muir, president of AFT Indiana.
The tensions are likely to set off an internal tug-of-war between
Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Bennett's allies
on the State Board of Education.
Ritz launched an internal review of the grading system Tuesday. Republican
Gov. Mike Pence said Thursday he supports a review of the system but did
not say whether grades issued by Bennett should be suspended.
Bennett resigned his job as Florida education commissioner Thursday, just
days after The Associated Press published emails showing his staff
changing Indiana's grading system to ensure a school founded by top
Republican donor Christel DeHaan got an A.
Bennett denies giving special treatment to the Christel House Academy, and
DeHaan and school officials said they were not involved in discussions
about the grade.
But the discovery of the emails has raised questions about the grade
system's credibility. Indiana uses 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
The Indianapolis Star found two takeover schools that would have benefited
if they'd received the same treatment that DeHaan's school did, and school
superintendents said the revelations this week should invalidate all the
grades Bennett issued.
Bennett said he decided to resign because he didn't want the "distraction"
the emails had created to detract from Florida's education efforts.
Wendy Robinson, superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools, said
Bennett's actions damaged the concept of accountability itself.
"We don't want 'accountability,' the term, to become passe. We don't want
it be so connected with corruption and manipulation," she said.
Pence urged the Department of Education to move swiftly on its review,
saying he wants results at next week's State Board of Education meeting.
Ritz did not respond to a request seeking comment Thursday.
Regardless of what action the state takes now, it's unlikely Washington
will revoke its support of the sweeping school improvement plan Bennett
wrote as Indiana's school chief. Indiana's 140-page plan requires states
to give each school an A-F grade based on student achievement, graduation
rates and career readiness. The state also set as a goal for 90 percent of
its students to be performing at grade level, 90 percent of students to
graduate and 25 percent of students to be ready for college or the
In exchange for the pledge, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave Indiana
permission to ignore parts of the No Child Left Behind law, such as all
students performing at grade level in math and reading by 2014.
Carmel Martin, a former top adviser to Duncan until earlier this year,
said it's unlikely that waiver will be revoked.
"From the department's standpoint, they wouldn't do it unless it were in
the best interest of the children of Indiana," said Martin, now a senior
official at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
Martin also said that even if something was wrong with implementing the
system, that doesn't mean it should necessarily be scrapped.
The Education Department has given 39 states and the District of Columbia
permission to ignore parts of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Law. But
that still leaves 11 states — giants California and Texas among them —
operating under the law and set to fall short of its requirements.