CAUGHT! Republican Schools Chief Changed Grades for Republican Donor’s Charter School

Image via AP/Michael Conroy

Image via AP/Michael Conroy

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!

Thomas Barr

Thomas Barr

Thomas Barr is a writer, editor and activist who's passionate about progressive ideals, with extra attention given to the fight for universal health care, medical marijuana, and saving our nation from decades of devastating trickle-down policies. Thomas is also a dedicated advocate for Type 1 diabetes research and education.
Be sure to check out his archives on Forward Progressives for more of his viewpoints.
Thomas Barr

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  • jeczaja

    I’m sure GOP will be outraged. Scandals just outrage the mess out of ’em.

  • Skymouth

    Way to instigate integrity with your students, you a$$!

    • Phil the observer

      Integrity is not a word the GOP understands very well.. As Inigio Montoya said in the “Princess Bride” ” I do not think that word means what you think it means”…

  • cirrostratus

    Hey, you can’t expect Republicans to get excited about a little falsification of government records for a wealthy friend–it’s not like it’s a manufactured scandal about a political opponent.

  • doyagitit

    Every school system that has a students performance as part of an educators pay will have to deal with this problem. The national trend is to privatize education and it is being lead by none other than Louisiana.
    Watch your school system close for signs that they are being singled out by your states education board for performance problems.

    • JamieHaman

      What are the signs? How would parents know to judge this?

      • Nik DeWitt

        Watch for a push for charter schools and attacks on teachers unions.

      • JamieHaman

        Ummm seems like that is happening in a lot of places anyhow, so that doesn’t seem like signs to me, unless you are talking about at a state level. (Which is where this occurred.)

        Maybe I’m not smart enough to see under the smarmy, but for me, that really isn’t a very clear sign.

        What made someone look at e mails between these people, who told?

      • LeeMrk

        Vouchers is a big one, especially if they are going to be used for private schools.

        Bringing in “teaching fellowships”–ordinary people without any training being allowed to teach for so many years under the “special” license is another.

      • bill nichols

        Somebody who actually gave a damn about ethics, it would seem.

  • LiberalConservationist

    Facts should NEVER stand in the way of payola! It’s the GOP’s way!
    Greedy Old Propagandists!!!

  • toevolve

    math smath…………I love this article..the question is: what can we do about this travesty to our education system? they are absolutely drowning out students and parents and teachers……..

  • NikNIkkel

    The ability to milk money from the public and parents is the entire reason for the “charter schools.” They produce an inferior product and make school principals strangely wealthy while every one else in the school works for sub par wages. Libertarian education at it’s best!

    • LeeMrk

      Nik, I disagree. Not all charter schools are an attempt to “milk money from the public and parents”.

      There are charter schools that work with students at extremely high risk (drug users, recovering addicts, gang members) or specific disabilities (such as autism) where these students would not be able to get an education. Many of those students have been expelled by the “traditional” schools where 40 students to a class is the norm, and teachers see 200 or more students in a day.

      Teachers in traditional schools are hard pressed to have any sort of meaningful one-on-one relationship with their students, much less be able to salvage or accommodate students. (Incidentally, expelling a student is a way for a school to improve it’s academic record, since that high-risk student no longer “counts”.)

      Charter school teachers usually get much less than their “traditional school” counterparts in both benefits and pay, work with students who already have an academic record that is not good, and experiences with schools that make them adversarial to teachers and formal learning.

      And mostly they do it because they believe that making a difference and trying to reach ALL children (and that all children “count”). Some of us still try to be the change in the world that we want to see.

      • NikNIkkel

        LeeMrk,
        If the charter schools in your state are performing this service, that is wonderful. In my state, Colorado, it is just a dodge to fund religious schools and provide amazing salaries for principles.

      • LeeMrk

        I am sorry to hear that this is the case for CO. I won’t say abuse of the charter school system never happens in MN (any system can be abused, given someone determined enough), but I will say I believe it’s the exception, not the rule. I do know that charter schools are performing that service here.

      • bronncohowie

        In Ohio when “charter” schools were first awarded ALL THE LICENSES went to one GOBP/teabagger donor who owns White Hat Management. Now with some years of statistics available, it’s been shown that “charters” perform the SAME as Public Schools. These corporate “schools” are just another way the GOBP/teabaggers reward their handlers.

      • bill nichols

        We really should Just Be Honest about this. The only reason charter schools exists is so certain people will be able to avoid the system that’s supposed to be for everybody. You know, get out of doing things The American Way.

  • Jim Olson

    This is the worst piece of writing I have seen since I was in third grade, (1952) The same innuendo repeated over and over again. This piece properly written would consume a paragraph.

    • Dale Mulkey

      im guessing you only made it to 3rd grade, as you not only read it but commented on it showing your lack of said education

      • Jim Olson

        The above comment is jibberish, without meaning.

  • Nik DeWitt

    Jeese, with these kind of antics the republiCONs will become even ignorant and stupid than the already are. Way to connect with your base.

  • bronncohowie

    When schools are corporations you will have to deal with the typical corporate greed.

    • Mac Gardner

      As is the case with the push for privatized prisons. FOLLOW THE MONEY and you will find a pot of TEA BAGS at the end of the rainbow.

  • OIK2

    I took a research methods class last year, and we learned about different types of validity, including face validity. What I learned is that face validity is meaningless. Face validity shows that the test looks like it is testing what it is meant to test, but is not an indication of the quality of the test.