Some local educators and politicians said they are not surprised former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett may have manipulated the A-F school grading formula developed by his office in favor of charter schools.
The Associated Press reported Monday that Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure that Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis operated by prominent Republican donor Christel DeHaan, received an A grade rather than the C it originally received due to poor 10th grade algebra scores. Charter schools are public schools with more flexibility in hiring teachers and creating programs.
"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to a colleague. Other emails obtained by the AP show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade. Other schools' grades also changed, but the emails show DeHaan's charter was the catalyst for the changes.
According to the article, DeHaan has given more than $2.8 million to the Republican Party since 1998, and specifically gave $130,000 to Bennett.
The emails raise questions about the department's manipulation of the formula used to determine the grades which, in turn, determine whether a school is taken over by the state.
After six consecutive years of failure, Gary's Roosevelt College and Career Academy was taken over by the state in 2011. New Gary Community Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said she hasn't yet read the story or emails between Bennett and his staff. She said she will research the issue to see if there was any effect on Roosevelt.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who founded the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology, a charter school in Hammond that received an F last year, was livid over the report.
McDermott, a Democrat, wrote on his Facebook page, "Maybe if I voted Republican, HAST's grade would have been higher. Maybe if I had donated $130,000 to the Republicans, HAST's grade would have been higher."
McDermott said Bennett ought to be investigated, and noted Lake County Democrats go to prison for "much less" than this.
Bennett, who is now Florida commissioner of education, released a statement Tuesday saying the department was surprised the grades for Christel House and several other schools came back significantly lower. Bennett blamed the problems on the school's unique grade configuration.
"Christel House only served students in grades K-10, thus the graduation rate and college- and career-readiness measures could not be calculated, because the school did not serve grades 11 and 12," Bennett said. "There were about a dozen other schools statewide that were impacted by this. These schools were reclassified as elementary/middle schools to accommodate their unique grade configurations, serving only K-10, and ensure accurate school grades.
“It is absurd to even suggest that we would make any changes to a grade based on anything other than a transparent accountability system," he said.
Former librarian Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who beat Bennett last November to become state superintendent, said in a statement the Department of Education will examine the current A-F model and create a new accountability system.
McDermott said HAST went through an ordeal last year in which the state didn't get all of its scores timely. McDermott said they appealed to the state and asked if they would consider all the material, but IDOE refused.
"They gave us an incomplete in many areas and it caused the school to drop from a C to an F," McDermott said. "We are comparable to schools who score B's and C's. We dropped the fight. We took the F because it was futile. Now, we read this report that someone donated $130,000 to Tony Bennett, and their grade was raised. They gave an F to a school that didn't deserve it. I think this is criminal."
House Democratic Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said many people suspected the letter grades were less about accountability than about building a narrative that traditional public schools were bad and ineffective.
"It's deeply unfortunate, but who I'm really sad for are the kids who go to some of these schools with the bad letter grades and the way they and their teachers have been disparaged," he said.
Portage Township Schools Superintendent Ric Frataccia said he feels sorry for colleagues who were deemed to have "so-called" failing schools or schools that were labeled C and were called into question. "It doesn't matter what the formula is if the integrity isn't there. Many of my colleagues had questions about the system," he said.
Ryan Ridgley, president of the Munster Teachers Association, said the emails show the lengths some people are willing to go, to make charter schools look better than traditional public schools.
"Tony Bennett took the approach that if the rules don't fit what you want, just change them," Ridgley said. "I'm sure many of the school grades have been skewed to fit the wishes of political donors. I never have bought into the A-F grading because it has always been easy to statistically modify the results the way the growth component is done."
Terry Spradlin, director of education policy at Indiana University, said, "To modify (the formula) until a certain group of schools is scoring favorably in the system seems inappropriate — not good practice or policy. It puts a cloud on the whole system and throws doubt on the system."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.