Secret Emails Reveal That Former Indiana Schools Chief Boosted GOP Crony’s Charter Ratings

Tony Bennett Former Schools Commissioner

Tony Bennett’s demands for ‘school accountability’ apparently don’t apply to deep-pocketed Republicans. And you’ll never believe who he works for now. Photo from the Huffington Post.

Ever since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, conservatives have celebrated “accountability” for public schools in the form of excessive standardized testing that penalizes low income children for their poverty, and “competition” from charter schools — which are essentially private, unregulated schools funded with taxpayers dollars. Once freed from the pernicious influences of trained, experienced teachers and their evil unions, charter schools can supposedly deliver superior, innovative approaches to education, while draining tax dollars from our underfunded public schools. Leading the charge for “accountability” and charter schools is Tony Bennett, a Republican and Indiana’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction. Never mind that he only served one four-year-term, after which decidedly not-impressed Hoosiers voted in Glenda Ritz, a Democrat. And never mind that he now works as the Education Commissioner for the State of Florida … an awful lot of people still take this guy seriously.

Which is why it’s so shocking … shocking, I tell you … that Bennett apparently holds some schools more “accountable” than others. Tom LoBianco from Associated Press (via Huffington Post) reports that — according to emails ferreted out by AP — Bennett used his influence to nudge up mediocre scores for a crony’s charter school, back in September 2012. Furthermore, this particular crony donated over $2.8 million to the Republican Party and $130,000 to Bennett’s campaign. When student data required the Indiana Department of Education to give Christel DeHaan’s Indianapolis charter school, Christel House Academy, a C-rating, Bennett was hell-bent on not letting this happen. In fact, it looks suspiciously as though Bennett tasked the DOE with adjusting criteria for their school ranking system for the sole purpose of ensuring that Christel House didn’t get the dreaded C.

It all started on September 12th, 2012, when Bennett’s then-Grading Director Jon Gubera came forth with the bad news that Bennett’s friend ranked “less than an A” (it was, in fact, a 2.9, or a C).

Here are some highlights from AP’s treasure trove of emails from the week of September 12, 2012:

  • Bennett to his staff about Christel House: “terrible” 10th grade algebra results have “dragged down their entire school.” This is “very frustrating and disappointing.”
  • Bennett to staff: “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.”
  • Bennett to his then-Chief of Staff Heather Neal:  “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.”
  • Bennett to Neal: “This will be a HUGE problem for us,”
  • Neal to Bennett: “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”
  • Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown to Bennett: The state might not be able to “legally” change the cutoff for an “A.”
  • Bennett to Brown: “We can revise the rule,” Bennett responded.

In the end, Christel House scored a 3.75 – an A- — and Gruber wound up resigning.

Of course, Bennett denies all wrong-doing:

“There was not a secret about this. This wasn’t just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid. […]The fact that anyone would say I would try to cook the books for Christel House is so wrong. It’s frankly so off base”

Speaking of “off-base,” charter schools aren’t even living up to all the hype they get from those who seek to privatize public education. Despite getting to cherry-pick higher-performing students (along with their more affluent and/or involved families), a 26-state study only shows slight gains for charter school students – and not in all states. Furthermore – as with all unregulated industries – charter schools are prone to abuse. For example, the huge Georgia Magnet Charter Schools system is being sued for neglect after a teacher allegedly put a choke-hold on a student. So much for “school accountability.”

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