Reformers took plenty of pleasure earlier this last week when Indiana Inspector General David Thomas announced that his office cleared former Supt. Tony Bennett of alleged corruption involving his move two years ago to amend the state’s A-to-F grading system, and which affected the ratings of 13 schools (including one whose founder was a donor to Bennett’s re-election campaign). In many ways, it is understandable. Yet reformers must still remember that the clearing of Bennett’s name on corruption charges does not excuse the bad decisions he made which led to this fiasco in the first place.
As you may remember, Bennett, who had moved on from the Hoosier State’s chief school officer job to become Florida’s superintendent, was forced to resign from that job after revelations of the move by Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco (based on e-mails likely leaked to him by Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett for the job) led to calls for his head from both traditionalists and opponents of Common Core reading and math standards such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute. The validity of Bennett’s decision (if not the lack of transparency involved) was vindicated a month later when a Hoosier State legislative team concluded that he made “plausible” adjustments that were geared to address concerns from school operators that the new grading system didn’t measure school performance in a fair and accurate manner. But traditionalists and Common Core foes still continued to accuse Bennett of behaving in a corrupt manner, while some reformers such as Ann Hyslop of the New America Foundation still thought that Bennett engaged in “grade inflation” for a select number of schools.
Yet as Thomas has noted, there was no evidence that Bennett amended the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. In fact, the investigation validated the statements by Bennett and his allies that the move was done to deal with the variations for 165 schools with a nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format, as well the state legislature’s own report. Bennett only ended up being fined $5,000 for asking state education department staffers to compile lists of key donors (as well as their decision to store that list on the agency’s computers). Certainly Bennett shouldn’t be excused for this bad judgment. But this is hardly evidence of corrupt behavior.
In light of this latest clearing of Bennett’s name, you can understand why reformers are calling out traditionalists, Common Core foes, and their more-skeptical fellow-travelers for beating up on him. American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess bemoaned in his Education Week column about how they engaged in the kind of “politics of personal destruction” that is beyond the pale of political battles, especially those involving systemic reform. Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Mike Petrilli went further, demanding on Twitter that Hyslop and Carey walk back their critiques of Bennett’s conduct.
Both men are right, at least on this: Traditionalists and Common Core foes who insinuated that the grade-letter change was driven by corrupt motivations — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute (who called for Bennett’s resignation from his now-former post as Florida’s education commissioner), and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin — should apologize for rushing to judgment. What they did was intellectually unacceptable and morally wrong. All of us should follow the Golden Rule, and one aspect of that is to not make accusations before all facts are in evidence. I don’t expect any of these folks to apologize. Particularly for Common Core foes such as Stergios, taking out Bennett was a victory for their cause of opposing the standards. [Let’s not even bother with the once-respectable Ravitch.] May God rest all of their souls.
Meanwhile Hyslop should have been a little more circumspect in calling Bennett’s move grade inflation. Sure, Hyslop was right to critique the lack of transparency surrounding Bennett’s decision to amend the grades. [More later.] Hyslop was on high ground to criticize how Bennett and his staff addressed the issues inherent within the A-to-F grading approach the state was implementing, and that he championed. But Hyslop should have also been more circumspect in her judgment until all the evidence came out. [Editor’s Note: Hyslop tells us that she eventually wrote in a New America piece published that the reasons behind Bennett’s move was “plausible” but it was still a decision that weakened public confidence in accountability.]
There are two other people who should also be called out for their conduct. The first is LoBianco, whose reporting led to the sliming of Bennett’s character. As I noted last year, his reporting incomplete and lacking in strong analysis. He failed to provide good journalism by not noting that Bennett was dealing with questions among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators about the validity of the A-to-F grading system since February 2012, when a dry run by Bennett’s staff showed wide swings in performance. LoBianco also did a shoddy job of reporting. He should have gone beyond the e-mails leaked to him by Ritz and asked current and former state education department staffers about the technical issues surrounding implementation of A-to-F grading. Finally, by failing to address the political motivations behind the e-mails being supplied to him — including Ritz’s battles with reformers over her attempts to roll back Bennett’s efforts — LoBianco didn’t act like a reporter shining light on complex issues.He, in effect, became little more than a political arms dealer, at best, and in the minds of some, a Mike Sitrick-like attack flack working for Ritz while on the payroll of an objective media outlet.
Then there’s Ritz, who started the entire character jihad against Bennett (and against Hoosier State reformers) in the first place. By leaking those e-mails to LoBianco instead of providing the information to the public in a more-honest fashion, Ritz behaved not as a public servant, but as a vengeful politician who only has her own self-interest in mind. By starting this act of character assassination against Bennett, Ritz essentially showed her own bad character. The good news, if one can call it that, is that Ritz is now paying her own price for engaging in politics of personal destruction. Her battles with both the reform-minded state board of education and the otherwise-useless Gov. Mike Pence has essentially weakened her ability to advance her agenda; her decision to spend $100,000 of state money to renovate her office — money that Bennett had redirected during his tenure to focus on improving student achievement — has also shown that she has no interest in helping all kids succeed. Hopefully, Ritz will lose office in two years.
Yet reformers cannot act as if Bennett was blameless. While Bennett clearly didn’t engage in bad behavior, he made the kind of bad judgments that weakens the efforts of reformers to transform public education for all children. And as a moral movement, we cannot dismiss or excuse it.
Bennett amended the grades in order to deal with problems with implementation of the A-to-F grading system as well as to avoid the likely public backlash that would come with it. Bennett’s faulty decision was also driven by another problem in his leadership: The loss of critical staff needed to address the information technology and other technical aspects of implementing the A-to-F grading system. As the Hoosier State General Assembly’s report pointed out, the Indiana State Department of Education lost three key staffers within a year of initial implementation. That brain drain, along with the apparent lack of information technology manpower within the agency, led to a series of snafus (including the aforementioned failure to eliminate the cap on student achievement growth that could count against the grades) that,along with Bennett’s aggressive deadline to put the accountability system in place by October 2012 and the underlying complexity of the accountability itself, led to Bennett’s hasty decision.
What Bennett should have done is slow down implementation. Certainly that would have been hard for him to do. After all, aggressively putting reforms in place is critical to making them stick. But in light of the loss of talent, Bennett should have announced that the agency wouldn’t release the results until November of 2012 in order to work out the kinks of implementation. Just as importantly, he should have made all of his decision-making — especially on the grade change — transparent and public, with full explanations for his decisions, and a willingness to take the heat for doing the job of properly informing all.
But by continuing on a needlessly aggressive path of implementation, Bennett sowed the seeds for another bad decision that he probably rues to this day. By not making his decision-making transparent and public, Bennett gave his opponents the ability to paint his actions in an even worse light than they deserved.
The consequences ended up being politically grave. Not only did he end up allowing his opponents to damage his reputation, he also jeopardized systemic reform efforts in Indiana, Florida and the rest of the nation. Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about the grade changes had hampered efforts to provide high-quality data that families, policymakers, researchers, and others can use to make smart decisions. As is, A-to-F grading wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. But Bennett’s decision and the controversy arising from it has raised even more questions about its validity as well as that of other accountability systems, playing into the hands of traditionalists and districts who want the status quo to remain ante.
Particularly on Common Core implementation, Bennett’s decision gave foes of the standards a tool to force him out of public office, and, in the process, get rid of another prominent supporter for high-quality standards that can help all kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, get the college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. Bennett’s presence in advocating for Common Core would have been especially helpful in Indiana, where legislators moved this year to kibosh their implementation.
Reformers have to remember that one bad decision can have so many devastating consequences. They must also remember that while the behavior of Ritz and others is deplorable, it is also coin of the realm. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship. So conduct becoming is the best weapon against such machinations, especially since reformers are going to be the first to call out the bad decisions of traditionalists. If Bennett was transparent in his decision-making in the first place, opponents wouldn’t have no weapon to use.
Ultimately, reformers must remember that like born-again Christians, we have publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. Because of our public declaration, and our dedication to the movement’s moral mission, we cannot engage in the same type of behavior and excuse-making as traditionalists who excuse policies and practices that condemn the futures of our children. This means that we cannot excuse Bennett’s bad decision-making even as we rightfully criticize traditionalists and Common Core foes for their wrongful rush to judgment.
Your editor hopes that Bennett returns to the public stage, has learned from his mistakes, and once again take his well-deserved place as one of the nation’s foremost reform-minded state education leaders. Bennett certainly deserves criticism for how he handled the grade change. But we will all make mistakes and deserve second chances. Now, more than ever, we need bold champions for the systemic reforms our children need. And as a movement, reformers need to learn the lessons from this fiasco even as we properly celebrate Bennett’s vindication.