Thursday May 26th, 2016 6:39PM

Charter grade scandal could slow growing movement

By The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- For charter school supporters, there were few better champions than Tony Bennett.

As Indiana's schools chief, he installed a school grading system that shortened the time it took to sweep aside a failing public school in favor of a charter. In Florida, he backed a bill - though unsuccessfully - that could have made it easier for parents to get charters in place at failing schools. He also pushed through a rules change that benefited both charter schools and traditional public schools by limiting how far any school's rating could drop in a single year.

Now, Bennett has them nervous.

Last week, Bennett resigned as Florida's education commissioner after The Associated Press uncovered emails detailing his efforts in Indiana to change the formula used to grade that state's schools to ensure a charter school he had held up as one of the state's best scored an "A."

For some charter supporters, who have looked to such state-administered grading systems as a way to prove their success, there is a fear the fallout could shake the public's confidence in an approach that already had plenty of skeptics. Perhaps as troubling is the idea Bennett might not be alone.

"I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that state chiefs and accountability directors have done this dozens of times," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a self-described Bennett admirer.

There have been several cases in recent years of teachers, principals and others being graded by state assessments finding illicit ways to improve their own scores, which are used to determine everything from school funding to bonuses for educators to whether a state can take over a school deemed to be failing. In March, for example, prosecutors in Atlanta indicted the city's former school superintendent and 34 others, accusing them of conspiring to cheat on standardized tests to boost student test scores.

But the Bennett case appears to be the first public revelation involving a state official who is doing the grading of schools. This week, Indiana's current schools chief put the release of this year's ratings on hold amid the discovery of what she termed additional "manipulation."

"It opens a window into a very real and significant problem for champions of education accountability," Hess said. "Part of the problem revealed in Indiana is we have very little insulation and very few safeguards in these systems. They've often been held together with duct tape and good-faith efforts rather than a careful, formal structure that's going to protect officials against both public pressure and the appearance of impropriety."

Russ Simnick ran a charter high school in Indianapolis from 2005 to 2008. Now senior director for state advocacy for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, Simnick said the Bennett affair could bolster the perception that charter school grades are vulnerable to political influence. But he said that's not what happened.

"He was not acting at the behest of the charter school community," Simnick said. "I think that's been missed in this whole story."

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991 with a simple idea: give parents, teachers or others frustrated with their public schools a way to create independent schools with a specific set of goals, or a charter. Today, there are more than 6,000 charter schools in 42 states. They're open to all, free to attend and mostly paid for with public money.

They have fierce champions on both sides of the political aisle who see charters as a solution to public education troubles and are willing to spend millions to support their cause.

Charter school organizations, their employees or their families gave nearly $2.3 million to state and federal political candidates between 1998 and the end of last year, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group.

The money is "not all bad, of course," said Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which officially supports charter schools as long as local school boards authorize them and can revoke their charters. "But it certainly brings with it a lot of influence."

A Stanford University study of charters in 27 states released this year found a quarter outperformed traditional public schools in reading and 30 percent did so in math. But the report also cautioned that "worrying numbers" of charters did a lot worse than their local public schools.

While some of the political donations from those with ties to charter schools have gone to Democrats, more money has landed with Republicans - many of whom have embraced charters as a key component of their approach to public education. Republicans who control state legislatures in South Carolina, Missouri, Texas and Michigan all have voted in recent years to expand charter schools.

Christel DeHaan, who built a fortune in the resort industry, runs Christel House Academy, the Indianapolis charter school that initially scored a "C" last year on Indiana's "A-F" grading scale for schools. She has donated $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett, who has insisted politics played no role in the changes to the grading formula that ultimately led Christel House to score an "A."

Bennett's emails show he was invested in the school's success. Bennett switched Indiana to the "A-F" grading system and consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he worked to secure support for his education agenda. Upon learning Christel House would receive a "C" last September, he wrote to his chief of staff, "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

The state is "the true accountability entity to help people make more informed choices," said Bruce Baker, an education professor at Rutgers University who specializes in school finance and charter schools. "But when state officials are taking an advocacy role, then their incentive is to game the grading system to make (charter schools) look like the better choice."

Critics of charter schools also worry about the potential financial incentives created by state-issued grades. Better ratings can attract more students to a charter school, leading to larger government payouts and fatter profits for charter school operators.

"Changing the grade is a very visible example of the influence that profit and money is having on this industry," said Alex Molnar, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado. "It's a feature of charter school reform. It's not a bug. It's baked into the reform."

But Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, cautioned against viewing Bennett's actions solely as a potential problem for charter schools. Instead, he said, it's a scandal that says more about problems with suspect state grading systems.

"What makes it important to the rest of the country are the bigger questions about these school accountability systems," Richmond said.
© Copyright 2016
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
S&P 500 index has its best year since 1997
The stock market closed out a record year with more all-time highs on Tuesday, giving U.S. indexes their biggest annual gains in almost two decades.
6:56PM ( 2 years ago )
Colorado readies for 'Green Wednesday' pot sales
Police were adding extra patrols around pot shops in eight Colorado towns that plan to allow recreational sales to anyone over 21 on Jan. 1.
1:52PM ( 2 years ago )
Kerry seeks framework for Mideast peace talks
A senior State Department official says Secretary of State John Kerry will try this week to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a framework for negotiating a final peace agreement, yet cautions against raising expectations for Kerry's latest round of shuttle diplomacy.
1:35PM ( 2 years ago )
U.S. News
Ethics laws set to take effect Jan. 1 in Georgia
After dominating much of the legislative session, a set of major ethics reforms is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.
7:04PM ( 2 years ago )
Sex offender held in Hall County for failing to register
A 47-year-old man was booked into the Hall County Jail Tuesday, being held without bond for allegedly failing to register as a sex offender, his second such arrest.
6:09PM ( 2 years ago )
Pharmacy robberies may involve same suspect
Oakwood Police Tuesday afternoon released details in a pharmacy robbery they're investigating, similar to one that happened in the Hall County Tuesday morning.
5:46PM ( 2 years ago )
Local/State News
Feds announce test sites for drone aircraft
The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.
2:23PM ( 2 years ago )
Congress letting 55 tax breaks expire at year end
In an almost annual ritual, Congress is letting a package of 55 popular tax breaks expire at the end of the year, creating uncertainty - once again - for millions of individuals and businesses.
2:21PM ( 2 years ago )
Feeling US snub, Saudis strengthen ties elsewhere
Increasingly vocal in its frustration over U.S. policies in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is strengthening ties elsewhere, seeking out an alignment that will bolster its position after it was pushed to the sidelines this year.
4:34PM ( 2 years ago )
Amid shouts of 'shame,' House GOP defeats gay rights measure
Democrats shouted "shame," but House Republicans switched their votes and defeated a measure to protect gay rights
8:03PM ( 6 days ago )
CDC director Freiden warns GOP Zika bill is inadequate
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday that a House GOP measure to combat the Zika virus is inadequate to deal with the swelling threat to public health
7:36PM ( 1 week ago )
Trump unveils list of his top picks for Supreme Court
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, released Wednesday a list of 11 potential Supreme Court justices he plans to vet to fill the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia if he's elected to the White House.
3:31PM ( 1 week ago )
1st US penis transplant could bring hope to maimed soldiers
A 64-year-old cancer patient has received the nation's first penis transplant, a groundbreaking operation that may also help U.S. veterans maimed by roadside bombs
8:04PM ( 1 week ago )
States dig in against directive on transgender bathroom use
Politicians in Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere are vowing defiance over the Obama administration's new directive on transgender bathroom use
9:19PM ( 1 week ago )