AMOUNT CONTRIBUTED TO FORMER FLORIDA EDUCATION COMMISSIONER TONY BENNETT’S FAILED INDIANA CAMPAIGN BY CHARTER SCHOOL CHRISTEL HOUSE ACADEMY OWNER CHRISTEL DEHAAN BETWEEN 1998 AND 2012. DEHAAN DONATED MORE THAN $2.8 MILLION TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IN THAT TIME
ESTIMATED ANNUAL SALARY FOR BENNETT. HE ONLY EARNED $79,400 IN HIS FORMER POSITION AS INDIANA SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION
NUMBER OF FLORIDA SCHOOLS RECEIVING AN “F” GRADE THIS YEAR AFTER THE SCORES WERE PADDED. USING ORIGINAL CALCULATIONS, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN 262
“HE IS A CHAMPION OF THE TESTING MANIA, UNCHECKED EXPANSION OF CHARTER SCHOOLS AND VOUCHER PROGRAMS AND HAS PROVEN TO ADVANCE THE JEB BUSH EDUCATION AGENDA THAT HAS DRAWN FIRE FROM TEACHERS, PARENTS AND EXPERTS IN THE FIELD. THAT’S THE SAME APPROACH THAT HAS LED TO A FLAWED AND CHAOTIC SYSTEM IN FLORIDA THAT HAS FRUSTRATED PARENTS AND TEACHERS ALIKE.”
– FLORIDA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT ANDY FORD IN A STATEMENT FOLLOWING BENNETT’S APPOINTMENT IN DECEMBER 2012
Sources: stateimpact.npr.org, Tampa Bay Times
DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
Though there may not be much polite call for gravedancing over last week’s big Floridian education clusterfuck – it is, after all, children and teachers who will suffer in the long run – the sheer magnitude of the foolishness at hand does lend itself to some playground-level
First of all, in a panic that maybe its whole escalating “teach to the test” ethos was going to actually produce a ton of failing schools (including some beloved charters) this year, the Florida Board of Education went ahead with a plan to soften the blow, creating a safety net to allow a more presentable race to the middle. But even with a magical new algorithm installed, the number of “D” and “F” level schools rose, leaving many wondering what the grades even meant anymore.
Well, apparently they mean quite a bit, at least in political capital. Enter Tony Bennett – the guy who always seems to be photographed while selling a used car; recent political appointee to the Florida Education Commissioner position by Gov. Rick Scott; not the gray-coiffed crooner – and his terrible, no-good week. See, it turns out that Bennett, an avowed disciple of the Jeb Bush dollar-sign-eye “reform” and “choice” religion that basically just wants to punish unions and corporatize education, isn’t necessarily an honest man with a big heart made of kid-love. Surprise!
It all fell apart for Bennett last week when the Associated Press revealed emails that, in pretty clear terms, show that in his former post as an education leader in Indiana – a post he was voted out of despite huge out-of-state Republican support in 2012 – Bennett doctored the overall school grade for at least one charter (and did so possibly more than once) in a way that appears to reflect some pay-for-play. The school in question, Christel House Academy, mystically bounced from a “C” grade to an “A” grade, apparently at Bennett’s behest.
“They need to understand that anything less than an ‘A’ for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” he wrote in an email, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Actually, if it’s accountability you’re after, anything more than a “C” would seem the greater compromise, right?
But if your accountability involves your campaign bank account, then Bennett probably made the right choice. Christel DeHaan, the school’s founder, is a huge Republican donor, one who has shifted $130,000 in Bennett’s direction over the years. (Fun fact: Walmart heiress Alice Walton is a six-figure Bennett fan, too.)
Because instantly admitting your awfulness is not a Republican reality, Bennett stood by his story, even with the offending emails, basically saying that there was a leak somewhere that was politically motivated, and so what about the grade change, because you guys just don’t understand. In effect, Bennett justified his behavior by asserting that Christel was the kind of school other schools should be modeled after, according to the Times, so the ends here justified the means.
Until they didn’t.
“It’s not fair to the children of Florida that I continue as commissioner and deal with this distraction,” Bennett said at a Wednesday press conference, not the least bit dismissively. “I end my tenure with my head held high.”
Two things: You created this distraction by lying; eight months is not much of a tenure. Got it? Naturally, Gov. Scott and old buddy Jeb Bush showered respect and tears on Bennett’s dismount, if only to keep things looking good in the “reform” mafia family.
Others, though, saw the Bennett tumble as something indicative of a larger problem. While activists launched a petition drive to halt the school grading system altogether – which will be complicated, given that there are federal components to the rankings – some elected officials argued that Bennett’s former position should cease to be a political appointment, and should go back to being an elected position.
“Floridians have become tired of individuals who are picked by kingmakers who really don’t understand the meat and potatoes of Florida education,” state Sen. Dwight Bullard said in a statement Aug. 2. “What we are in essence dealing with is a lack of trust among Floridians of those who are putting these people in place.”
Maybe soon we can get back to fulfilling the social contract of guaranteed quality education in public schools? All this reform talk is becoming a bit of a distraction.