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.”