By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Former state schools chief Tony Bennett spent five lonely weeks at his Tallahassee, Fla., home before getting the results of an independent report that cleared him of accusations that he “fixed” a school grade for a Republican donor while he was superintendent of public instruction in Indiana.
The report’s release Friday, which he found out about on Twitter, brought him the relief for which he and his family had been hoping since the allegations first arose in a widely published Associated Press report in late July.
“Let’s make no mistake, we were already tried and convicted in the court of public opinion,” Bennett said in an interview from his Florida home.
The 56-page report, authored by a Democrat and a Republican who spent a month analyzing reams of data, concluded Bennett and his staff made “fair” and “plausible” changes to the state’s school rating system before releasing 2012’s A-F grades. The report also found Bennett and his staff “consistently” applied changes to benefit not only an Indianapolis charter school but to 180 other schools across the state.
“I thought that took a pretty strong backbone, given the fact that the narrative was so negative initially,” Bennett said.
That narrative — that the Republican Bennett had manipulated a grade for a single school for partisan political reasons — triggered a chain reaction that included his quick decision to resign as Florida’s schools commissioner, a position he took after he was defeated for re-election in Indiana by Democrat Glenda Ritz last November.
Bennett said his decision to resign came not because he did anything wrong, but because he wanted to spare Florida’s Republican governor and its state education board from any more negative publicity.
“I think this work [to improve schools] in Florida deserved a commissioner who wasn’t going to be coming back to Indiana to try defend his credibility,” Bennett said. “I didn’t think the [Florida] state board should have to, every time I made a recommendation, have to read about me defending my integrity.”
Bennett did come back to Indiana shortly after he resigned to meet with the report’s authors, who were commissioned by legislative leaders to examine the allegations made against Bennett and his staff. Bennett said he spent almost two hours meeting with Democrat John Grew, executive director of state relations and policy analysis at Indiana University, and Republican Bill Sheldrake, president and founder of Indianapolis-based research firm Policy Analytics.
Over the next month, as Grew and Sheldrake were conducting their investigation, Bennett and some of his former staff spent countless hours back in Florida putting together their own data to show the analysts how and why changes were made to the A-F grading formula. Bennett needed to dispel allegations that he changed the A-F formula to benefit a favorite charter school, Christel House Academy in Indianapolis.
It was a difficult time, Bennett said, as he continued to see subsequent news reports centered on what became known as the “Tony Bennett scandal.”
“Waking up in the morning and seeing some of the things that would come my way, it made for some pretty long days,” Bennett said.
The report was posted Friday morning on the Indiana General Assembly’s website as it was being released to the media. That’s where Bennett read the report, which included an executive summary that found problems with the A-F grading system as administered by Bennett, but dismissed the notion that he’d unfairly fixed the grade for Christel House.
Among the report’s conclusions is that Bennett may have rushed the rollout of the new A-F grading system, which ranks schools by letter grade based on a complicated formula that includes standardized test scores. The report found there was a shortage of technical staff at the Department of Education and not enough time to test whether the new grading formula worked.
The report’s authors also noted that despite efforts made by Bennett and his staff “to interact with educational stakeholders and practitioners” to explain the new A-F grading system, there was deep distrust among educators that the grading formula was fair, accurate and equitable for all schools.
Bennett said those issues raised by the report’s authors weren’t lost on him. He acknowledged that beyond the distrust and misunderstanding of others, that he and his staff may have created problems “due to our inability to convey what we were doing.”
But Bennett also said he felt a sense of urgency to roll out the A-F grading system, which changed the ways schools were evaluated and gave them letter marks akin to a student’s report card.
The urgency was two-fold: The federal government had agreed to grant Indiana a “waiver” from mandates laid out under the federal No Child Left Behind law, with the understanding that the state would implement a new school accountability system. And Bennett himself felt a sense of urgency to get the grading system in place, believing it would it pressure failing schools to do better.
Bennett used the baseball phrase “charging the ground balls” to describe his approach to pushing ahead on the A-F school ratings and other controversial reforms that earned him blowback from political opponents. The phrase conveys his impatience and unwillingness to wait for change — a characteristic shared by his top staff, he said.
“We spent every day charging the ground balls,” he said.
Since his resignation from the Florida post, Bennett has been contemplating his next steps, professionally and personally. He said he and wife, Tina, are talking about moving back to Indiana to be close to their children and grandchildren. Before he was elected as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, Bennett was a coach and school administrator in New Albany.
His hope is that the report released Friday will put an end to what he described as the painful accusations that he was “dishonest” in his role as Indiana’s state schools chief.
“If the original accusation is what’s remembered, people will also have to remember the ultimate resolution to that accusation,” Bennett said. “And that is that we didn’t do what people said we did.”