News and Tribune

August 5, 2013

HOWEY: THe hollow facade of Tony Bennett

By BRIAN HOWEY
Indiana columnist

NASHVILLE, Ind. — There was a basketball gym-style scoreboard outside of then-Supt. Tony Bennett’s Statehouse office in July 2009. A clock ticked off the time remaining in his term. The score showed Indiana’s high school graduation rate at 77.8 percent.

Bennett informed me that by the end of his term in 2012, Indiana would have a 90 percent graduation rate.

I found Bennett’s goals ambitious, even aggressive. His confidence was as audacious as that of NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

Over the three decades of covering Indiana politics and public policy, the high school graduation rate had always been in that 70th percentile. Bennett was promising to reach the 90th percentile in just four short years, coming without any significant increase in school funding. While then-Gov. Mitch Daniels had side-stepped then-Speaker Pat Bauer’s aversion to education reform by seeking changes administratively from 2007 through 2010, the real thrust of the Daniels/Bennett change didn’t pass until April 2011. 

It was then that the number of charter schools increased, the voucher program began, and there were mold-splitting reforms in school and teacher grading that included the “A through F” program, and the credentialing of principals and superintendents. Bennett had made other changes early in his term, such as ending half days and teacher training changing to emphasize the topics they would teach. 

Lo and behold, in 2011 the Indiana graduation rate officially stood at 86.61 percent, and in Bennett’s final year in office, at a stunning 88.38 percent. It was astonishingly close to Bennett’s goal.

If these results were too good to be true, when you mined down into other data related to public education, you could see problems in the metrics. In 2006, Indiana University noted that of the 92,624 freshmen entering the state’s higher education system in 2003-04, some 23.3 percent had to take remedial courses. Essentially, this means their prep training was below university standards.

In 2011, the Indiana Higher Education Commission found that more than 40 percent of prep graduates were in university remediation, as well as 7 percent  with academic honors degrees. For students who graduated with a general degree, it was 83 percent. 

These past eight months, after one of the most rapid rises in Indiana politics and education, we’ve watched the precipitous fall of Supt. Tony Bennett, culminating with his stunning upset loss to little-known Democrat Glenda Ritz last November, and as of Thursday, his resignation as Florida’s education superintendent.

Bennett’s ultimate Sunshine State downfall had its roots in Indiana, where emails obtained by the Associated Press’s Tom LoBianco revealed Bennett’s willingness to take liberties with the A through F numbers of Christel House, a charter school founded by Indiana philanthropist Christel DeHaan. It looked even worse when it was reported that DeHaan had contributed $130,000 to Bennett’s reelection campaign.

Bennett had cited Christel House as the poster child for his reforms. But last September, when it became clear the charter school would receive a “C” instead of an “A”, it set off a panic in the superintendent’s office. “Oh crap. We cannot release until this is resolved,” said Heather Neal, an aide to the superintendent on Sept. 12, 2012 and now Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative liaison. Bennett would email, saying, “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work. We may well lose Pence on this as well ... .”

And in a Sept. 13 email to DOE brass Neal, Jon Gubera and Dale Chu, Bennett would write, “I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, the Chamber, [House Speaker] Brian Bosma, [Senate President] David Long and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school. Now here we are and they are not an A school. We have two problems. First, I either lied or twisted the truth in order to get what we want. I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of repeated lies I have made over the past six months.”

By the time the A to F numbers were released, Christel House had received an “A” in what the AP would describe as a “weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble” to find a way to “lift Christel House from a C to an A. It’s not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan’s grade jumping twice.” 

“That’s like parting the Red Sea to get numbers to move that significantly,” Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, told AP. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., was incensed at the special treatment, noting that the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology received an “F” due to what he called a “data-entry problem.”

Bennett would acknowledge to education blog StateImpact, “Frankly, my emails portrayed correctly my frustrations with the fact that there was a nuance in the system that did not lend itself to face validity.”

When it came to compromising accountability, Bennett and his staff undermined not only his meteoric career, but the entire strata of reforms that may be nothing more than a hollow facade.

— This columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol