Grade scandal casts shadow over education reform in Indiana

2013-08-11T00:00:00Z 2013-08-12T00:02:08Z Grade scandal casts shadow over education reform in IndianaBy Carmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

Some educators believe the investigation into the state's school grading system casts a shadow over education reform in Indiana.

Questions abound about the system following charges former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett changed school grades, benefiting a charter school owned by a Republican donor. 

Bennett lost his elected position in Indiana last November, but was hired as Florida education commissioner in January. He resigned Aug. 1 following the Associated Press story regarding his role in the grade-changing flap.

Gary attorney Tony Walker, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education, said the shadow over education is partly because Bennett was the "poster child" for education reform nationally. Walker said in some ways that's interpreted as Indiana not wanting the education reform Bennett laid out.

"But no one is out there aggressively promoting any alternatives," Walker said. "The A-F grading system is not perfect, but it's better than what we had."

Walker doesn't believe the accountability system will be revised, but suspects the metrics of the formula to determine school grades could change.

East Porter County School Corp. Superintendent Rod Gardin said educators know what students need to be able to learn and do.

"Whether it's Common Core Standards or the Indiana academic standards, our teachers will work every day to educate our students, and our grading comes from what we see locally with our students," Gardin said.

While the investigation of the A-F system clouds the validity of the 2012 A-F grades schools received, Gardin said it's still important to report to the community how schools are performing.

The issue surrounding school grades has caused Gary Community School Corp. Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt to question whether Gary Roosevelt should have been taken over by the state. Roosevelt was taken over in 2011. Bennett appointed a private company to observe the school for a year at a cost of $850,000, then implement a plan to turn the school around.

While many school districts across the state have sought a general fund referendum to shore up their operating budgets, Pruitt said that's not on the table in Gary.

Too much reform too fast?

Indiana State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said education reform perhaps has moved too swiftly in the state.

"There have been too many changes," Smith said. "Tony Bennett moved in so many different directions that it created a windstorm in education. We have virtual schools, tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and all of it causes money to be piped away from traditional public education at the same time that there are more demands on educators."

Smith believes this has made people uneasy about the direction of education.

While he favors school choice, Kevin Teasley agrees education reform in Indiana was moving too fast without enough time to assess the results.

Teasley is founder and president of Indianapolis-based Geo Foundation, which operates 21st Century Charter School in Gary and Gary Middle College.

"I wrote a column a few years ago encouraging Tony Bennett to slow down," he said. "It's been a problem with reformers across the country who want to push fast. I understand why ... kids don't have time to waste."

First there was No Child Left Behind and AYP, Teasley said. The new graduation rate was rolled out, then the A-F grade system and more public charter schools and vouchers for private schools were added.

"I've been an advocate of education reform since 1989," Teasley said. "It can't be implemented overnight. Slow down. Step off the gas, and give schools time to understand the new rules and regulations.

"I'm sorry he (Bennett) didn't heed that advice."

Ritz presiding over a slow-down

Though some thought Glenda Ritz got off to a sluggish start this year as Indiana superintendent of public instruction, Terry Spradlin believes Ritz has responded well to the challenges.

"I was impressed with her testimony before the legislative committee last week," he said. "Now, she's called for a revision of the accountability system as a result of the manipulation of the system, and that's an appropriate response."

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