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Florida Schools Chief Steps Down Over Indiana Scandal


Florida's schools chief has quit. He resigned yesterday amid controversy over decisions he made in his last job in Indiana. Indiana is one of a growing number of states that have begun using test scores and other data to grade schools from A to F. This week, the Associated Press published emails revealing that when he was in Indiana, Tony Bennett asked his staff to alter the grading formula in a way that it benefited a charter school of a prominent donor. Elle Moxley from member station WFIU reports.

ELLE MOXLEY, BYLINE: Even as Tony Bennett resigned his post in Florida Thursday, the former Indiana superintendent maintains he did nothing wrong. But emails from last fall show Bennett had his staff tinker with the metrics of a new accountability system to ensure an Indianapolis charter school got an A. He defended his actions, saying Christel House Academy is one of four charter schools recognized as the best in Indiana.

TONY BENNETT: To me, any grading system we develop, people should be able to say that's an A school. They're A's. We understand that.

MOXLEY: That's what Bennett has always said about Christel House, which is run by a prominent Republican donor who gave tens of thousands of dollars to his reelection campaign. But the first time Bennett's team ran the numbers, the school didn't get an A. It got a C. In an email, Bennett says Christel House doesn't have 11th and 12th graders, so it was penalized for not having a graduation rate. Bennett had his staff rerun the numbers using a different calculation. Two weeks later, Christel House had its A. Mike Petrilli is vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and an outspoken advocate for Bennett's policies. He says, on its face, what Bennett did in Indiana was not manipulation. It was calibration of a new system that had not been used before.

MIKE PETRILLI: I think, in fact, he did exactly what you would want a public official to do. He saw a problem with a high-stakes accountability system. He saw that there was something strange going on in the algorithm, and he dug in to find out how they could fix it.

MONTAGNE: Petrilli points out that a dozen other charter schools saw their grades go up, not just Christel House. But others say it should never have received that A. Fewer than 40 percent of Christel House passed a required statewide algebra exam. Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute, an education policy think-tank. He says it doesn't matter how you slice it. That's not a good school.

JIM STERGIOS: Accountability systems are not there to confirm your eye. Accountability systems are there to ensure that kids are learning.

MOXLEY: Stergios is based in Massachusetts, a state known for its high-performing schools. But instead of issuing letter grades, Massachusetts releases all kinds of school level data: test scores, class sizes, even student-to-computer ratios. Stergios says it's much harder for state education officials to make adjustments behind closed doors.

STERGIOS: I would feel much more comfortable with an objective system where you're putting out data where officials have a much harder time to fool around with than I would feel with an A to F system. There will always be political pressure to make an A to F system work better for one school or another.

MOXLEY: For his part, Stergios says Bennett was right to resign. He says if accountability systems are to work, they must built on the expectation of transparency. Without it, the public will never buy in. For NPR News, I'm Elle Moxley.

MONTAGNE: And that story comes to us from State Impact, a project of NPR member stations examining how state issues and policy affect people's lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.