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Questions unanswered
In light of the disclosure of emails exposing the state’s A-F grading formula as rigged, legislators and the governor are left to answer these pressing questions, perhaps at Pence’s town meeting in Fort Wayne today:
•Should millions of tax dollars be handed to private and parochial schools for students allowed to leave public schools on the basis of a now-suspect D or F grade?
•Should a school be subject to takeover by a private company for repeated failing grades, given the arbitrary design of the formula?
•What would you do if teachers or administrators were caught manipulating data to benefit themselves or an interest group?
Then-Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett talks to educators at Waynedale Elementary School. Bennett’s school grading system has been revealed to be rigged to benefit a contributor’s charter school.

Making (up) the grade

After Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated incumbent State Superintendent Tony Bennett last November, Gov. Mitch Daniels lashed out at public school teachers.

“If you are a fan of anything-goes politics, it was a creative use of illegal – but still creative use – of public resources,” Daniels told an education reform group in December. “We got emails sent out on school time by people who were supposed to be teaching someone at the time, all about Tony Bennett.”

The former governor never produced those emails, but Tom LoBianco of The Associated Press has uncovered an email trail far more disturbing: Bennett’s frantic effort to manipulate the state’s A-F grading formula to the benefit of a wealthy campaign contributor. Their disclosure begs for response from lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote to his chief of staff two months before Election Day, after a top aide revealed that campaign supporter Christel DeHaan’s charter school earned a C. “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work. We may well lose (GOP gubernatorial candidate) Pence on this as well. …”

The series of email exchanges details the search for a “loophole” to boost Christel House’s grade to an A.

Keeping DeHaan and candidate Pence happy was a priority, and it’s easy to understand why. DeHaan, a condominium timeshare tycoon, contributed $130,000 to Bennett’s campaign coffers and more than $2.7 million to Indiana Republicans, including large contributions to campaigns to help the GOP win and maintain its majorities in the General Assembly. Pence’s campaign donated $25,000 to Bennett’s re-election effort.

The scramble to inflate Christel House’s grade also was successful in pushing more than half of the state’s charter schools to a letter grade of C or better, a claim Bennett couldn’t make before the formula was massaged.

The disclosure settles the question why educators well-versed in test scores and evaluation systems couldn’t make sense of it.

“(I)t is not criterion based, it does not statistically make sense, it does not account for standard measure of error, it is unexplainable and difficult to understand, and it fails to comply with current law and administrative code,” Superintendent Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen County Schools told legislators in a letter last November.

No, but it did plenty more. The jury-rigged formula maintained the goodwill of a generous campaign donor, preserved the illusion of sound accountability and justified the continuing legislative push.

Indiana lawmakers, however, had enough misgivings about the A-F grading system to pass legislation this spring directing the State Board of Education to create a new system based on individual student academic performance and growth. The catch is that the state board is controlled by Bennett loyalists, and the new system isn’t due until Nov. 15. Until a new system is in effect, the current grading formula – disclosed as a sham – holds high stakes for Indiana schools and education dollars.

Indiana voters already have spoken on Bennett’s performance as superintendent of public instruction. Should his clearly compromised work be allowed to stand?