News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 2, 2013

Swift reaction: Bennett, man in charge, showed no accountability himself

TERRE HAUTE — Local educators were quick to react Thursday to the news that Tony Bennett had resigned as Florida’s education commissioner.

The resignation came amid allegations that Bennett changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana’s school chief.

“The person who was in charge of our accountability system showed no accountability himself,” said Dan Tanoos, Vigo County schools superintendent and a long-time vocal opponent of Bennett’s policies.

According to Tanoos, Indiana voters spoke last November, when they ousted Bennett and elected Glenda Ritz as the new state superintendent.

Voters “realized the damage he had done to public education here,” Tanoos said.

“Now, the rest of the story is told. … It wasn’t a matter of what was best for public education or students — it was what was best for those funding his [Bennett’s] campaign.”

Bennett announced his resignation at a news conference, saying that while he did nothing wrong he didn’t want to be a distraction to ongoing efforts to overhaul Florida’s education system.

Emails published by The Associated Press this week show that Bennett and his Indiana staff scrambled last fall to ensure Christel DeHaan’s school received an A, despite poor 10th-grade algebra scores that initially earned it a C.

Last year, the release of those grades was delayed by the Department of Education, Tanoos said. The Vigo County School Corp. contacted the state regularly to find out why.

Also, “There were certain schools whose grades didn’t make sense,” Tanoos said.

He believes the Bennett administration’s efforts to change the grade for Christel House “calls into question the validity of the grading system.”

Karen Goeller, VCSC deputy superintendent, said that for Indiana educators who have worked so hard to meet accountability requirements, “It is frustrating … to hear a certain school had the ability to have a grade singled out and reconsidered.”

Schools operate under the assumption everyone has a level playing field because accountability stakes are so high, Goeller said. “It is disappointing to think that grades, which reflect the efforts of so many students and staff, may be distributed in an inconsistent way.”

Kim Tucker, Clay Community schools superintendent, believes that what’s happened is “disappointing” and “demoralizing” for educators who have worked so hard — with integrity and professional commitment — to meet their responsibilities under the accountability requirements.

From the beginning, superintendents and educators across the state tried to call to Bennett’s attention the flaws in the grading system, Tucker said.

“Evidently, those voices were not able to have the same impact a few other voices were able to have whenever those flaws became apparent,” Tucker said.

Leonard Orr, Southwest Parke superintendent, said educators in that district spend much time and effort to ensure the integrity of the testing process.

Based on what he’s heard and read, if it’s true, he finds it “disappointing” that Bennett would work to change the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor.

“It is disheartening to our staff and parents,” he said.

Sharon Pitts, retired Woodrow Wilson Middle School principal, said that the special treatment Bennett apparently extended to Christel House “made me sick to my stomach — that someone at that level would do that.”

Pitts said she’s always been concerned that  charter schools receive certain breaks that aren’t extended to public schools.

In her mind, “There can’t be two standards.” Schools accepting public tax dollars “must be held to the same standards.”

State Sen. Tim Skinner of Terre Haute, a Democrat and a retired Vigo County teacher, has been openly critical of Bennett and his policies.

Many educators believe “there were some terrible injustices done to public education in Indiana” during Bennett’s tenure, he said.

“I certainly hope somehow, some way, we can take a look at the mistakes his aggressiveness caused and work to try to correct them,” Skinner said.

Bennett said his changes were for the betterment of kids, but in Skinner’s opinion, “It really wasn’t about kids at all. … It was about protecting his ideology and making this very flawed system work to suit his purposes. I think a lot of kids got lost in the wake of his ideology.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

 

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