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August 4, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Questions of fairness, impartiality, public trust legitimate in wake of school rating controversy

The discovery of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — weakens trust.

The acceptance of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — erases trust.

Indiana needs to draw a clear line between the former and the latter, and not cross it.

The saga of Tony Bennett illuminates the importance of reinforcing such boundaries. The Associated Press obtained emails from September, showing that Bennett — then the state superintendent of public instruction — and his staff scrambled to ensure that Christel House Academy in Indianapolis received an A under Indiana’s A-through-F school grading formula, despite poor sophomore-level algebra scores that initially earned it a C. The academy happens to be a charter school founded by Christel DeHaan, a prominent Republican donor who contributed $130,000 to Bennett’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Bennett had upheld Christel House as an A-caliber model to legislators, and influential supporters.

Upon learning of the C the academy was about to receive, Bennett emailed his chief of staff on Sept. 12, “This will be a HUGE problem for us,” he wrote, according to the AP report. “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.”

Christel House received an A.

Before the controversy caused Bennett to resign Thursday as Florida education commissioner — a position to which he was appointed after his failure to win re-election in Indiana — he insisted the grade change resulted from his Department of Education staff correcting a flaw in the A-F formula. He steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, favoritism toward a donor or shielding a prized school from the accountability system he’d implemented. Instead, Christel House’s C revealed a concern that it and other schools with odd multiple grade levels — rather than all high school, or all middle school, for example — could face a grading disadvantage, Bennett said.

By fixing the problem, Christel House — then K-10 — and a dozen other schools were affected, he said.

No need to be rigid, right? Let’s be fair. Flexible.

The urgency to apply flexibility in the name of fairness apparently was not as intense in 2011 when two Indianapolis public schools faced a similar situation, according to an Indianapolis Star report. That year, Bennett denied requests by Indianapolis Arlington and Howe high schools for flexibility in the assessment of their schools’ overall grades in the state’s A-F system, the Star story said. The schools faced a state takeover after six consecutive years of F ratings, but Indianapolis Public Schools chief Eugene White reasoned that both made sufficient gains in grades 9-12 to earn a D, if low scores by the Arlington and Howe middle-schoolers weren’t counted.

Bennett took a rules-are-rules approach then, dismissing White’s accusations that the formula was unfair.

“We could, all day, try to find a way of making the figures work, but the calculations being used and addressed today are the calculations we have used since 1999,” Bennett said then, the Star reported.

Those two schools each received an F.

Were those low grades “a HUGE problem”? Probably for the people pulling for those two public schools to turn the corner and climb in the A-F school accountability ratings. But for the national school-reform movement? Not so much. Thus, it wasn’t surprising to see an Indianapolis Public Schools board member, Michael Brown, question the different handling by Bennett of the Arlington and Howe low-grade situation, and that of Christel House.

With Christel House, flexibility was used. With Arlington and Howe, a state takeover occurred.

It’s not illogical to wonder whether the influence of the reform movement that Bennett champions — including private companies hired to manage schools taken over by a state, and corporations with political agendas — inspires more consideration when “a HUGE problem” arises at one of their model schools. Their A-F ratings, billed as an “accountability” system, has an ironic accountability problem.

The state needs to look into that, said Brown, the IPS board member.

“If the system was skewed to benefit Christel House Academy, then it was skewed to hurt IPS?” Brown told the Star. “That concerns me more than anything else.”

The system and its accountability have broad ramifications. The A-F grades determine which schools face state takeovers, affect state-funded private school vouchers, and determine a school’s state funding level. A lofty school grade can attract homebuyers and businesses to that neighborhood, while a low grade delivers the opposite effect.

Critics of the A-F ratings have long insisted that school assessments are too complex to be accurately summarized with a letter grade. Bennett’s own explanation for the Christel House grade change seems to reinforce that criticism. Dozens, even hundreds of other schools across Indiana could legitimately contend their C or D would actually become a B or A if not for a flaw in the formula.

Which schools’ grades would be reconsidered?

Doubts as to that answer are understandable. State Republican leaders — who endorsed a majority of Bennett’s vast reform measures even after he lost last November’s election to Glenda Ritz — seem aware that public confidence in the system has been shaken. David Long, the Republican state Senate Pro Tem, called for annual third-party audits of the A-F ratings.

“The big issue is the fact that it would appear one or more school’s grade was manipulated. That’s completely unacceptable,” Long told The AP. “The system has to be one that all the schools, parents and kids can count on as being fair and impartial. If there’s one thing that can’t be allowed, it’s that any school grades can ever be allowed to be manipulated again.”

Diminished public trust is indeed a huge problem.

Terre Haute Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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