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Florida's Education Chief Resigns Over Grading Scandal

In education circles, Tony Bennett is widely known as a hard-charging Republican reformer associated with Jeb Bush's prescriptions for fixing public schools: charter schools, private school vouchers, tying teacher pay to student test scores and grading schools on a A through F scale.

Bennett resigned from his post as Florida's education chief this morning when a controversy over the last of those things — the school grades — caught up with him.

The situation was related to his previous job in Indiana, where he was superintendent of schools until early this year. On Monday, the Associated Press published emails from 2012 showing Bennett and his staff in Indiana discussing how to change the state's grading formula to boost the grade of an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor.

In a press conference this morning in Tallahassee, Bennett called the charges "malicious" and "unfounded." But he said he did not want to become a distraction in Florida. "Every minute we spend defending the credibility of your commissioner because of what's said 800 miles away," Bennett said, "is a minute we waste that we should have been thinking about educating children in Florida."

Bennett said the decision to resign was "mine alone" and that Gov. Rick Scott encouraged him to continue on as commissioner.

"I end my tenure with my head held high," Bennett said.

Bennett has been defending his actions related to the school grades all week. He says the school tied to the donor, Christel House Academy, was one of four Indiana charter schools that "by any measure ... would be four A schools." However, the first run of the numbers using the state's grading formula gave Christel House a "C."

Bennett's staff re-worked the formula to the advantage of schools such as Christel House, which combine elementary, middle and high school students. Christel House doesn't have 11th or 12th graders, so was penalized for not having a graduation rate. The updated formula resulted in Christel House receiving an "A."

In a press conference in Tallahassee this morning, Bennett reiterated that what he and his staff did in Indiana "wasn't rigging anything."

"What we did in Indiana was very simple," he said. "We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools — and I want to emphasize that, because there's been a focus on one school — but did not allow 13 schools to have their grade truly reflect their performance. Because they were unfairly penalized for kids they didn't have in their school."

Florida's education commissioner is one of the most difficult jobs in the country.

Former commissioner Eric Smith left his job in March 2011. His replacement, Gerard Robinson, was hired in August of that year and resigned 12 months later amid questions about errors in calculating school grades and growing opposition to standardized testing.

Bennett was to bring stability to the post, but now he's out too.

"Florida is a dynamic, diverse state. It's not an easy ship to steer," said John Legg, chairman of the education committee of the Florida state Senate. "But there are individuals out there who are up to that challenge.

"Anytime you have a change at the helm it's always disappointing," Legg said. "I believe it was probably the right move...he was becoming a distraction over policy."

John O'Connor is a reporter with StateImpact Florida. Elle Moxley is a reporter with StateImpact Indiana. StateImpact is a project of NPR member stations examining how state issues and policy affects people's lives.

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John O’Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida, a project of WUSF, WLRN and NPR covering education. John writes for the StateImpact Florida blog and produces stories for air on Florida public radio stations.
Elle covers education for KCUR. The best part of her job is talking to students. Before coming to KCUR in 2014, Elle covered Indiana education policy for NPR’s StateImpact project. Her work covering Indiana’s exit from the Common Core was nationally recognized with an Edward R. Murrow award. Her work at KCUR has been recognized by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and the Kansas City Press Club. She is a graduate of the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism. Elle regularly tweets photos of her dog, Kingsley. There is a wounded Dr. Ian Malcolm bobblehead on her desk.
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