This Scandal Gets a ‘C’ (No, Make That an ‘A’)

Aug 6, 2013 by

As scandals go, this was a quick one.

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned among reports of preferential treatment for the politically influential while he served as Indiana’s superintendent for public instruction. Specifically, it appears he engaged in changing a school grade from a “C” to an “A.”

The school in question was a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor. Apparently, it was also used as a shining example of how school grades could identify successful academic outcomes that others could emulate and poor outcomes that could lead to conversion of a public school to a charter school.

As a co-founder of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, Bennett is a true believer in the school grading system and the push for school vouchers and teacher merit pay.

After losing reelection to his Indiana post in November, he was selected to be the next in the revolving door of Florida education commissioners under Gov. Rick Scott. In less than three years, there have been three commissioners and two interim commissioners.

Even before the scandal broke, Bennett’s seven-month stint as Florida schools chief was not without controversy. He was facing pushback on several fronts. The conservative base of Republican voters was deeply troubled by his support of the Common Core state standards, a position he shared with mentor Jeb Bush. On the other end of the political spectrum, there was mounting criticism over efforts to tie merit pay, vouchers and conversion schools to a seemingly faulty and fluid grading system.

Additionally, members of the state Board of Education and some of the state’s influential superintendents asked him to account for the validity of Florida’s school grading system. He proposed “a safety net” to prevent schools from dropping more than one letter grade, a policy the board approved with some reservation.

In the midst of responding to all his masters here, The Associated Press released emails detailing how Bennett and his Indiana team appeared to be overhauling Indiana’s school grading system to improve the grade of the generous donor’s school.

The most troubling of the emails from Bennett to his team is hard to walk back from. He writes, “I am 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 out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.”

Oh my! Nobody likes repeated lies.

Bennett resigned four days after the AP story broke. During those four days Patricia Levesque, the executive director of Jeb’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, circulated a letter defending him; Democratic lawmakers called for his resignation, and the governor remained silent.

While the scandal and the resignation are behind us, the policy and systemic problems are still center stage. Isn’t it time for an honest conversation about doing away with a school grading system that is costly, divisive and unreliable?
Systemically, just how much autonomy does the education commissioner have to run the Department of Education and to whom is he directly accountable? In all fairness, it would be difficult for anyone to succeed in a toxic environment of distrust while having to report to so many chiefs.

Among the education chiefs are the commissioner, the state board that hires and can fire the commissioner; the Legislature, which confirms his appointment; the governor, who appoints the board; the former governor who was the father of Florida’s grading system, and his political foundation, which enjoys tremendous influence with legislators. Curiously missing from the hierarchy are local school boards, teachers, parents and students.

Until we address the policy and systemic challenges, we won’t stop the revolving door. Why would any accomplished educational leader want to come to Florida with our record of resignations, divisiveness, lack of autonomy and complex reporting structure?

And why do we keep looking outside Florida? Is it because we’re searching for a gung-ho reformist to implement the national agenda of more testing, school grades, vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and the so-called parent trigger?

Wouldn’t it be preferable to choose a leader who’s familiar with Florida’s schools, their history and their challenges? And wouldn’t it make sense to grant him or her independence to reform the system based on the needs of our students and the advice of their parents?

After all, didn’t legislators spend two sessions extolling the virtues of parent empowerment?

Better yet, perhaps it’s time to return to an elected education commissioner.

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