New documents show that former Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett -- who now heads Florida's schools -- overhauled Indiana's much-heralded school grading system to guarantee that a charter run by a major campaign donor would receive top marks. These revelations shine a light on the big bucks behind the education privatization agenda, its continued failure to meet the need of students, and provides another instance of cheating to cover up poor educational outcomes.
Bennett had been applauded by education privatizers like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for enacting reforms like school grading, vouchers, and anti-union measures. He was a keynote speaker at ALEC's December 2011 States and Nation Policy Summit, and the education reforms he pushed were adopted by ALEC in August 2011 as a stand-alone bill called the "Indiana Education Reform Package" -- in no small part because they reflected ALEC model legislation.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us"
Christel DeHaan, a big Republican donor in Indiana and school privatization supporter, gave Bennett an astounding $130,000 in campaign contributions for his 2008 and 2012 elections. But when DeHaan's Christel House charter school received a "C" last September under Bennett's grading system, he and his staff scrambled to fix it, according to emails obtained by the Associated Press.
"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 then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.
Bennett had made the A to F grading system a signature item of his 2011 radical education reforms, which he spearheaded with the support of then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and ALEC legislators in the state. Bennett often cited Christel House as a model charter school as he secured support for his education overhaul, and according to the emails had assured the Chamber of Commerce and legislative leaders that Christel was an "A" school.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote to Neal about the school's "C" grade.
Neal emailed back a few minutes later: "Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved."
"Legislative leadership as well as critics of A-F are going to use this against us to undo our accountability metrics through legislation," Bennett wrote in another email. "I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months."
According to the Associated Press, Bennett's staff scrambled to alter the grading system over the next week, and Christel House's grade jumped twice, eventually reaching an "A."
Indiana Has No Campaign Contribution Limits
In most states, a donor like DeHaan would be prohibited from directly giving a candidate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Indiana has no campaign contribution limits for superintendent.
Bennett, first elected in 2008, raised an astounding amount of money for his 2012 reelection campaign: DeHaan gave $75,000, and was one of Bennett's top donors, behind Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, another major school privatization funder, who gave him $200,000. Other donors included voucher proponent Eli Broad ($50,000) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($40,000).
He also got $45,000 from Hoosiers for Education Reform, a group bankrolled by the DeVos family's American Federation for Children, which itself has run into some campaign finance problems. As CMD has documented, AFC boasted to funders in 2012 that it spent $2.4 million in Wisconsin helping elect nine Wisconsin state legislators, but told the state's Government Accountability Board that it spent only $345,000 that year.
But despite significantly outraising his opponent, voters rejected Bennett and his education reform agenda, in what the head of the teacher's union called the biggest upset in Indiana history.
Money may not have bought that election, but given these latest email revelations, it sure did seem to buy some special treatment.
How Common is Cheating?
For years, educational reformers have promoted the notion that schools need to be run more like a business, with "competition" from for-profit entities and increased "accountability" through testing regimes. But the promised improvements in educational outcomes have not followed, apparently leading some to cook the books.
Perhaps the best-known cheating scandal came from former Washington, D.C., school Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose controversial reforms had been credited with improving test scores in the District's schools -- an accomplishment that has been cast into doubt by evidence of widespread cheating, where teachers or school officials appeared to change students' incorrect test answers to improve results. Investigations have found extremely high erasure rates that were statistically anomalous, and some charter schools have been cited.
Despite these scandals, both Rhee and Bennett have moved on to greener pastures. After resigning from her position in 2010, Rhee went on to found the 501(c)(4) StudentsFirst, and after Bennett's election loss in Indiana, he was appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott to head that state's school system.
Update August 1: Bennett has resigned from his post in Florida, citing the Indiana cheating scandal.