'Choice' School Accountability in the Eye of the Beholder – or Big Donor

On the very same day that the Washington Post reported on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul’s call for more school vouchers and expanded charter programs, the Associated Press exposed a frantic behind-the-scenes operation in Indiana to raise the grade given to a charter school run by a major Republican donor. As Rick Perry might say, “oops.”

Paul’s call to expand vouchers and other “school choice” programs is not surprising.  Right-wing political strategists have invested huge sums in recent decades to undermine public support for public schools as a means of outsourcing public education dollars into private hands. Privatizing public education is practically an article of faith in today’s Republican Party and it has been a major project of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

What should be more surprising, but isn’t, is Paul’s seeming lack of concern for accountability in the use of tax dollars. The Post reports that Paul “shrugged off” documented quality control problems in DC’s voucher system and “dismissed” recent research showing that charters, while improving, are still not outperforming traditional public schools. Pushing for expansion in the face of dubious evidence is standard operating procedure for education privatizers.

Many advocates for expanded voucher and charter programs say the problem is that public schools aren’t held accountable for their results, but they resist applying the same kind of accountability to “choice” schools. In Indiana, as the Associated Press reports, former state school superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff “frantically” overhauled his much-ballyhooed “A-F” grading system last year when it turned out that Christel House, a charter school run by a major GOP donor, would receive 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….

Though Indiana had had a school ranking system since 1999, Bennett switched to the A-F system and made it a signature item of his education agenda, raising the stakes for schools statewide.

Bennett consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he secured support for the measure from business groups and lawmakers, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, alerted Bennett on Sept 13 that the Christel House Academy had scored a 2.9, or a "C."

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to Neal.

Neal fired back a few minutes later, "Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved."

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a "C'' to an "A," including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high "B'' look like an "A'' and changing the grade just for Christel House.

It's not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan's grade jumping twice….

"I am more than a little miffed about this," Bennett wrote. "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."

Bennett told AP that his frustration was with a flawed grading formula and denied that the staff’s frantic changes were designed to give DeHaan’s school an A. But, the AP report says, “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 is now the state education commissioner in Florida, where advocates for privatization of public education have made a huge push in recent years.  

UPDATE: In the wake of news coverage of the school-grading scandal in Indiana, Bennett resigned as Florida's education commissioner on August 1, just a day after Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Bennett was doing a "great job."