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Last updated: Sun. Sep. 08, 2013 - 04:47 pm EDT

Indiana leaders promise transparency post-Bennett

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana's education leaders are learning from the mistakes of former School Superintendent Tony Bennett, starting with their promise to spend more time crafting Indiana's new school grading formula and doing so in the open.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said drafting a new formula will have to be done transparently in order to earn the public's trust. The two commissioned a review of Indiana's grading formula a few days after The Associated Press published emails showing Bennett changed the formula to bump the grade of a prominent Republican donor's charter school from a "C'' to an "A."

Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chiefs shortly after the emails were published, as did two top aides who helped him overhaul the formula: Dale Chu left as Bennett's chief of staff in Florida; Heather Neal left her job as Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist last month.

Bill Sheldrake and John Grew, the veteran budget analysts commissioned with conducting the review, released their findings Friday that Bennett had determined the Christel House Academy would be a "quality control school." In other words, any formula created by his team would have to give the school an "A."

Bennett's problems stemmed from having an overworked staff, rushing to get the school grades out without properly testing the formula and dealing with a high rate of turnover in technical staff, wrote Sheldrake, a former Republican Statehouse aide and Grew, an adviser to former Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon. They found his changes were applied evenly, but specifically declined to investigate any political motivations.

Bennett's allies, including Chu and Neal, clamored to spin the findings as proof Bennett was right all along. But the report, according to its authors, neither vindicates nor condemns Bennett.

What is clear, however, is that Bennett and his team made their changes in secret and that more transparency will be needed in writing a new formula.

"The process of development of a new system should be based on: 1. Extensive involvement by experts and practitioners from the education community. 2. Transparency in all decision-making by the SBOE and IDOE throughout the development process and final adoption of the revised rule," Sheldrake and Grew wrote.

SBOE is the state Board of Education, and IDOE the Indiana Department of Education.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of the Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, said the school leaders have always welcomed accountability, but that oversight should be transparent and easy to understand.

"For me the discussion has never been about conviction or exoneration," Butts said. "I believe the concern is the transparency of the development and the reporting of the scores. The model needs to be able to effectively facilitate conversations that improve the education of our children. The current model has not been effective in accomplishing that to date."

Lost in the mix, somewhat, has been the fact that Indiana has had a school grading system since O'Bannon signed it into law in 1999. There were no letter grades in the old system, but it still assessed schools based on testing and graduation rates and, more controversially, allowed the state to take over schools deemed to be "failing."

Bennett and his team were rushing to rewrite that system last year. They had already won approval of new rules from the state Board of Education and, clearly, had determined that Christel House charter school was an "A'' school from the start. Uncovered in last week's report is news that Bennett and his team felt intense pressure to protect urban charter schools like Christel House and didn't have the time or staff to handle the complexities of writing a grading formula for all Indiana schools.

"Let's make one thing clear: What happened with respect to these grades is unacceptable. We wouldn't tolerate a teacher in a classroom changing scores after the fact to get a desired result for a favorite student," Larry Grau, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said Friday in a prepared statement. "We shouldn't tolerate it in our government."

Bennett's failings should not be used to ditch school grades, and it appears they won't, Grau said.

Lawmakers wrote the new letter grades into law earlier this year and a 17-member advisory panel — picked in equal parts by Long, Bosma, Pence and Democratic School Superintendent Glenda Ritz — is expected to deliver its recommendations by November. The Department of Education, based on the recommendations, will then spend a year testing the new formula.

In the meantime, Bennett's formula will stay in place for a year. At least now there is some more insight into how those grades were calculated.


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