DOUG ROSS: It's harder to sing Bennett's praises now

2013-08-02T00:05:00Z DOUG ROSS: It's harder to sing Bennett's praises nowBy Doug Ross doug.ross@nwi.com, (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 nwitimes.com

Tony Bennett did some good work when he was Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. But it's becoming apparent he did some really embarrassing things, too.

This week's big news is the revelation that Bennett and his staff changed the performance rating of an Indianapolis charter school from C to A.

Christel House Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis, is operated by prominent Republican donor Christel DeHaan.

Bennett has denied any wrongdoing, saying the grade had to be adjusted because Christel House was a K-10 school, so factors intended for grades 11 and 12 didn't apply in that school's case.

Bennett, who became Florida's education commissioner after losing his Indiana re-election bid last November, resigned Thursday from the Florida post because of the Indiana controversy.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. is furious, because the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology was downgraded when the Indiana Department of Education didn't receive test scores on time, but the agency wasn't receptive to the HAST request to consider all the material.

"We are comparable to schools who score B's and C's. We dropped the fight. We took the F because it was futile," McDermott said. "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."

McDermott also is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

Changing the rating for Christel House widened the rift between supporters of public schools and those of charter schools and private schools. It also provided Democrats a rallying cry for next year's elections.

If the Christel House rating were the only case in which Bennett's judgment were questioned, his explanation might be chalked off as well-intentioned but inadvisable.

Instead, it is another black eye for Bennett's Republican Party.

Bennett also was involved in another highly politicized decision, agreeing to then-Gov. Mitch Daniels' private email rant/request that liberal professor Howard Zinn's book, "A People's History of the United States," not be used to educate K-12 teachers or in K-12 classrooms.

Frankly, I agree with Daniels that the book isn't suitable for K-12 students. It's more appropriate for college students, who are expected to have the ability to question material before them rather than accepting it as gospel.

But that scandal stirred up Democrats, including state Rep. Charlie Brown, of Gary, who demanded Daniels' resignation as president of Purdue University.

There's another scandal involving Bennett. A few months before he lost the election last year, his agency purchased $1.7 million in videoconference equipment that wouldn't work with the agency's existing IT infrastructure. Another dumb move.

I have been a big supporter of Bennett in the past. I supported his reform agenda.

He was generally right. But when he was wrong, as we've seen lately, he was very, very wrong.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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