Education reformers rush to defend Florida schools chief, Tony Bennett,
after he resigned in a pay-to-play scandal
...and who is the biggest loser?
This from Salon:
Tony Bennett, Florida’s education chief, abruptly resigned yesterday after an AP investigation revealed that in his old job running Indiana’s schools, he frantically overhauled the state’s evaluation system to avoid giving a poor grade to a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor. In addition to his charter school advocacy, Bennett was also known for his staunch support of standardized testing.
Emails obtained by AP showed that Bennett and his staff scrambled to make sure the donor’s school received an “A” grade, despite initially earning a “C” thanks to poor test scores. “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in September to his chief of staff, who is now Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.
Despite the controversy (Bennett calls the charges “malicious and unfounded,” saying he decided to resign within days of the AP’s report only so he could avoid becoming a “distraction”), Bennett has plenty of defenders in the school reform movement. Here’s Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor who has become a patron saint of school reform and one of its most vocal advocates with her StudentsFirst advocacy group:
Bennett’s leadership in IN showed his commitment to kids. With better grad rates & fewer failing schools, IN kids benefited from his tenure.Bennett’s boss, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, maintained a few days of radio silence after the controversy broke before finally saying Wednesday that Bennett is “doing a great job.” The education commissioner resigned a little over 24 hours later. Already, observers are saying the controversy will imperil Scott’s education reform agenda.
— Michelle Rhee (@MichelleRhee) August 1, 2013
As Indiana schools superintendent, Bennett became a national star in the school reform movement. Most notably, he earned the attention of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a major reform advocate who has become a bit of a benefactor for Bennett. For instance, Bennett was one of the first members of Bush’s Chiefs for Change coalition of pro-reform school superintendents, and is still listed on the website as a member.
And after Bennett resigned yesterday, Bush issued a press release defending him, titled “Bennett’s Lasting Achievements for Public Education Hailed by Former Gov. Jeb Bush.” “Tony started every day with the focus of creating a system that would equip kids to achieve their God-given potential,” Bush said, via the website of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform group. “Leadership is doing what is right, knowing the results will follow. The data is clear; thanks to Tony’s leadership children are better prepared for success.”
Another blog post from the Foundation for Excellence in Education reads like an obituary for Bennett, reminiscing about his love of flossing and concluding with the line: “May we all strive to do justice to his legacy.”
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first pay-to-play controversy involving a pro-reform schools chief tied to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Last year, a Polk-award-winning investigation from the Portland Press Herald found that “large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes.”
Apparently the Foundation for Excellence in Education is not a place to debate important issues of education reform. At least, they did not print my respectfully-written question which challenged author Neil Ruddock's (Neil@ExcelInEd.org) assertions. Ruddock concluded:
"I applaud Tony Bennett’s intolerance of mediocrity, excuses, and political expedience."I asked Mr. Ruddock if he also applauded those who were intolerant of people who made excuses for cheating the system, favoring certain groups, and lying to the public about the performance of our public schools. (or words to that effect)
As of the time of this writing, no comments have been posted to the article. I guess no one had anything good to say.
The Bennett resignation stimulated the creation of Cheats for Change whose name is a play on Chiefs for Change, Jeb Bush's group of conservative state education chiefs, of which Bennett was a star.
#Cheats4Change says "for too long, self-appointed 'reformers' have deceptively wrapped themselves in the language of children, choice and change in order to inflict dubious education policies upon the public, most frequently on our most vulnerable communities and children."
This from The Answer Sheet:
The biggest loser in the Tony Bennett resignationNow this gives new meaning to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change school reform group.
In less than a year, Bennett has been ousted from two leading education positions. The first time was by voters disgruntled with his standardized test-based school reform program, which had originally been implemented in Florida under Jeb Bush when he was governor from 1999-2007.
Bennett was a protege of Bush, who became a national school reform leader in recent years through two Florida-based foundations he established to push his school reform model, which includes vouchers, charter schools and an A-F system to grade schools largely based on test scores.
It was that A-F school grading system in Indiana that led to Bennett’s resignation; the Associated Press published a story about e-mails detailing how Bennett pushed his staff to change the grade of a favored charter school from a “C” to an “A.” Bennett denied he tried to help the school, run by a Republican donor, but the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, apparently didn’t believe him, or didn’t want to deal with the scandal, because he “accepted” Bennett’s resignation on Thursday.
Indiana (and other states) use the A-F school grading system for several reasons, including determining how much money schools receive and which schools should be taken over by the state because of poor performance. Florida, coincidentally voted to change its own A-F school grading system in July in a move labeled as nothing short of a “scam” by critics: The Florida Board of Education became worried that as many as one-third of public schools would see plummeting grades as a result of new and supposedly higher standards resulting in lower student test scores, so it decided that no matter what the test scores are, no school can drop more than one letter grade in a single year.
What Bennett did in Indiana and the Board of Education did in Florida show how little the rules matter to some school reformers who wrap themselves in the mantle of “accountability for all” but try to escape it themselves. In both Indiana and Florida, the Bush-inspired A-F school grading system had to be changed to keep corporate-influenced school reform from collapsing under the weight of its own illogic, revealing the reform model as bankrupt.
But there’s more to this story than the fall of Tony Bennett in Florida.
The ousting of Bennett in Florida underscores a growing schism among Florida Republicans over the future of school reform. That split became clear last month when the state’s top Republican lawmakers asked Bennett to pull out of a group of states designing high-stakes standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards and not to accept those assessments as a replacement for the state’s current exams. Bennett has been a big Common Core supporter, as well as a leading member of one of the two consortia designing the Core-aligned exams. Bush is a big Core supporter, too, but a growing number of Florida Republicans aren’t, including Sen. Marco Rubio.
As a result, perhaps the bigger loser in the Bennett resignation is Jeb Bush, who had been building a national reputation on his school reform efforts. The end of the Tony Bennett era in Florida education is also part of the decline of the influence Bush has held on Florida education policy in recent years.
It has been an open question as to whether Bush would use his education record as a key part of a 2016 presidential run. As more and more of the Bush reform agenda comes under scrutiny, that education record is likely to be too tarnished for that use.
What, after all, does it say for Bush’s national reform agenda if the former governor can’t influence education policy in the state in which he started it all?