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Give grades a chance, says Senate leader

Today's editorial notes the resolution approved by Fort Wayne Community Schools denouncing Indiana's A-F grade system, suggesting that other school boards should follow FWCS' lead.

But Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, isn't budging in his support for school letter grades, calling the Fort Wayne board's move "premature."

"We obviously have to get to the bottom of this and the changing of the grades," Long said in a phone interview today, referring to email disclosures that revealed former state Superintendent Tony Bennett manipulated the formula to boost the grade of a campaign donor's charter school. "For anyone to denounce the system because of the grade change ... it's got a lot more to do with it than that."

Long called the grade-formula changes "unforeseen and unfortunate," but noted that legislators already were in the process of changing the A-F program. Along with House Speaker Brian Bosma, he has charged John Grew and Bill Sheldrake -- both well-respected numbers experts -- to examine how school grades were affected by the changes Bennett's staff made. A report is expected early next month.

I asked Long about Bennett's email comments regarding his and Bosma's commitment to the education agenda pushed by the former superintendent.

"I don't want to cloud my reasons for pursuing the Florida position with things like the belief that Brian and David will sell this agenda out for the sake of political expediency (which I do believe)," Bennett wrote about a month after the election last year.

Long attributed the comments to Bennett's distress over losing the election and over displeasure with the General Assembly's plans to make changes in his flawed A-F system.

"I will say that I think he was in a bad place emotionally," Long said. "I will give him a pass ... he was stunned that he lost the election. It also reflects the fact that we were pushing back -- we were hearing from our superintendents: 'we don't think this is a fair evaluation of our schools.' "

Long insists that the right formula can be found to assign letter grades to schools and that it can be transparent. He said he and Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, met recently with the four Allen County school superintendents to discuss the grade system.

"We're working and listening with them," he said, noting that the state needs to not only address the grade-change scandal, but also produce a grade system that instills confidence.

That will be a challenge. Florida, where an A-F system was first used, continues to struggle each year, tweaking test cut scores in anticipation of how schools will be labeled. In his short-lived post as Commissioner of Education in Florida, Bennett was at the center of the state's latest tangle with its A-F grades.

Long insisted he's not intent on hurting public schools: "The last thing I want to do is that," he said. "I want to see a fair system that makes our schools into the best they can be. ... It's really about getting this right."

There's an opportunity for Long and other Republicans to not only get it right but also distance themselves from the scandal involving Bennett. They can extend the pause on Common Core standards implementation to the A-F system. Why rush to issue letter grades that are certain to be viewed with distrust?

Separate the General Assembly's A-F review from last year's fiasco and make it a clearly bipartisan effort with Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz. If the goal truly is to get it right, not to label public schools as failing and authorize more voucher handouts, then there should be no rush.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at