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Editorials

An ‘F’ for Bennett

Bennett

“I must say that this situation is very frustrating and disappointing to me. I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, The Chamber, Brian Bosma, David Long, and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school. I have repeatedly said to all of them that we checked their data and given the 162 day calculation we were certain they are an A school.”

– State Superintendent Tony Bennett in a Sept. 13, 2012, email to his top staff members

Indiana lawmakers placed great faith in Tony Bennett’s education agenda. The confidence the former basketball coach exuded in espousing his school reform expertise was convincing enough to push the most expansive package of education bills in the state’s history: Charter school expansion? Check. Taxpayer-funded vouchers? Check. Performance-based teacher evaluations? Check. Lower standards for teacher education? Check. A-F letter grades for schools and districts? Check.

If the lawmakers who enthusiastically bought Bennett’s reform sales pitch aren’t feeling a bit uncomfortable these days, they should be. The Indianapolis charter school he fearlessly touted as an A school earned that grade last year only with a frantic recalculation by his staff.

This year, using the same formula, it earned an F.

Christel House Academy, the school started by Bennett campaign donor Christel DeHaan, has come out on the losing side of the former superintendent’s effort to present complex school issues in black and white. It’s easier to sell legislators on private-school vouchers and other bad policy, after all, if you can present targeted schools and districts as failing. His A-F grading scheme worked only when he could control the data. It never offered students, parents or taxpayers any value.

So how much more of Bennett’s so-called reform agenda is hopelessly flawed? The Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Mike Pence would be wise to take a second look or they will be left to bear the blame as the damages to public schools are realized.

Educators and public school officials have been warning of the harm for several years. But Bennett was able to spin the narrative until he was upset by Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz in November of 2012. She’s now being accused of intentionally smearing Bennett’s record, but the A-F grade report released Dec. 20 is based on the former administration’s formula, not Ritz’s.

The former superintendent must own responsibility for the formula and the failing grades it assigned to schools he shamelessly supported as superior to traditional public schools, including the charter schools in Fort Wayne. None scored higher than a D.

Much of the tension between the newly elected state superintendent and the Republican-controlled State Board of Education stems from a stubborn refusal to abandon Bennett’s reform agenda. The Christel House grade should give the board members, legislators and the governor second thoughts about all of the changes he pushed.

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