Is your school’s performance falling behind the pack? Student grades not up to par? If you’re a prominent Republican donor in a red state who has given millions to Republicans over the years, apparently you have nothing to worry about. Everything will be “taken care of” for you.
At least that’s what happened in Indiana under former state school superintendent Tony Bennett — who is now the Commissioner of Education for the state of Florida. According to AP:
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an “A,” despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.
The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.
A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
So, where to start with this story? First of all we have a man in Tony Bennett who built his reputation on a promise to “hold failing schools accountable.” Great job there, bud! Apparently that only applies if the school isn’t run by a prominent Republican donor who’s given you $130,000 in the past. And it’s not as if Christel House was a “failing” school per se — hell, I got by just fine with a few C’s in my time. But a “C” was clearly not acceptable for a school like this which is supposed to be held in such high regard, run by a prominent person with a reputation to uphold.
Of course, any competent, ethical superintendent would encourage a school in this situation to explore their options for improving their algebra program to achieve excellence. But not Tony Bennett. No sir, this was a five-alarm blaze that had to be extinguished immediately through whatever means possible. There were, after all, reputations at stake!
So what did he do? He scrambled to find a way — any way — to change Christel House’s grade back up to the “A” it so richly deserved. From AP:
Trouble loomed when Indiana’s then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.
“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to Neal.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”
By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a “C.”
A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a “C” to an “A,” including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high “B” look like an “A” and changing the grade just for Christel House.
It’s not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan’s grade jumping twice.
In other words, Oh, crap! We have to find a way to “fix” this ASAP! We can’t let this get out to the public until it’s “fixed!”
And “fix” it they did.
Because when it comes to improving a school’s image and student performance, nothing works better than just making crap up as you go along to suit your particular agenda. Failing algebra? Math schmath! School grading not up to par? Squeeze some more blue into that color chart, sprinkle some fairy dust and watch as that grade magically jumps to your liking!
And this doesn’t only involve Tony Bennett. From the AP’s investigation and emails it’s clear that many more Indiana officials were involved in this fixing scheme — including current Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist Heather Neal.
And the kicker — as I mentioned earlier, Tony Bennett is currently Florida’s Commissioner of Education. Florida Governor Rick Scott applauded the Board of Education’s decision to hire him, even as teachers and education advocates in the state broadly criticized it. I’m sure they’re going to sleep well tonight knowing that Bennett is currently reworking the state’s grading system. Large and in charge!
For his part, Bennett is sticking by his decision to change Christel House’s grade. “We wanted a system that passed the face validity test,” he said, “and the face validity test is that there are schools that are A schools and they should obviously be that.”
Because like we said, who cares about actual performance, right? If a school has a reputation to maintain (and there’s influential donor money involved), we can’t let some subpar algebra scores ruin that for everybody! Just “fix” the problem and watch it magically go away!
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