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September 10, 2013

TOM LoBIANCO: Indiana leaders promise transparency post-Bennett

Advisory panel will tackle new A-through-F formula.

Indiana’s education leaders are learning from the mistakes of former schools superin-tendent 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 chief 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.

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