Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold "failing" schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett's education team frantically overhauled his signature "A-F" school grading system to improve the school's marks. Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan's school received an "A," despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a "C."
"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.
The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.
A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as that state's education commissioner, reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that DeHaan's school received special treatment. He said discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.
"There was not a secret about this," he said. "This wasn't just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid."
However, the emails clearly show Bennett's staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders. Bennett estimated that 12 or 13 schools benefited, not just Christel House, but the emails show DeHaan's charter was the catalyst for any changes.