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Education "Reformers" Defend School Chief Caught Giving "A" to Charter School Initially Graded "C"

Education reformers rush to defend Florida schools chief, Tony Bennett, after he resigned in a pay-to-play scandal.
 
 
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Tony Bennett, Florida’s education chief,  abruptly resigned yesterday after  an AP investigation revealed that in his old job running Indiana’s schools, he frantically overhauled the state’s evaluation system to avoid giving a poor grade to a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor. In addition to his charter school advocacy, Bennett was also known for his staunch support of  standardized testing.

Emails obtained by AP showed that Bennett and his staff scrambled to make sure the donor’s school received an “A” grade, despite initially earning a “C” thanks to poor test scores. “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in September to his chief of staff, who is now Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

Despite the controversy (Bennett calls the charges “malicious and unfounded,” saying he decided to resign within days of the AP’s report only so he could avoid becoming a “distraction”), Bennett has plenty of defenders in the school reform movement. Here’s Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor who has become a patron saint of school reform and one of its most vocal advocates with her StudentsFirst advocacy group:

Bennett’s leadership in IN showed his commitment to kids. With better grad rates & fewer failing schools, IN kids benefited from his tenure.

— Michelle Rhee (@MichelleRhee)  August 1, 2013

Bennett’s boss, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, maintained a few days of radio silence after the controversy broke before finally saying Wednesday that Bennett is “ doing a great job.” The education commissioner resigned a little over 24 hours later. Already, observers are saying the controversy  will imperil Scott’s education reform agenda.

As Indiana schools superintendent, Bennett became a national star in the school reform movement. Most notably, he earned the attention of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a major reform advocate who has become a bit of a benefactor for Bennett. For instance, Bennett was one of the  first members of Bush’s Chiefs for Change coalition of pro-reform school superintendents, and is  still listed on the website as a member.

And after Bennett resigned yesterday, Bush issued  a press release defending him, titled “Bennett’s Lasting Achievements for Public Education Hailed by Former Gov. Jeb Bush.” “Tony started every day with the focus of creating a system that would equip kids to achieve their God-given potential,” Bush said, via the website of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education reform group. “Leadership is doing what is right, knowing the results will follow. The data is clear; thanks to Tony’s leadership children are better prepared for success.”

Another blog post from the Foundation for Excellence in Education reads like an obituary for Bennett, reminiscing about his love of flossing and concluding with the line: “May we all strive to do justice to his legacy.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first pay-to-play controversy involving a pro-reform schools chief tied to Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Last year, a Polk-award-winning  investigation from the Portland Press Herald found that “large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes.”

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.