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Those who can magically turn a 'C' into an 'A'

Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett
Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony BennettAssociated Press

Last year in Indiana, a charter school called Christel House had a small problem. Students' poor algebra test scores had dragged down the school's overall letter grade in the state system to a "C," which in turn put state funding in jeopardy.

At the same time, Republican politicians saw a related problem. Christel House is owned and operated by Christel DeHaan, a major Republican donor with great influence in Indiana's GOP circles.

And that's when things got interesting. The Associated Press reported yesterday that Tony Bennett -- Indiana's former schools chief who has since become Florida's education commissioner -- "frantically overhauled" its school grading system last fall in order to ensure the Republican donor's charter school got an "A," even though it earned a "C."

[T]rouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to [then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist]. 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.

Wait, did that say Bennett and his team looked at "adjusting the presentation of color charts" to make a "B" look like an "A"? Yes, yes it did.

Oh, and did I mention that the Republican donor in question had directly contributed $130,000 to Bennett before he scrambled to improve the donor's school's grade? Because that happened, too.

In the end, Bennett solved the problem by shifting the scale in Christel House's favor. The emails obtained by the Associated Press didn't detail how, exactly, the books were cooked, but the materials show "DeHaan's charter was the catalyst for any changes," and the emails "do show DeHaan's grade jumping twice."

And just like that, the "huge problem" went away.

It's quite a story on its own, but this is also the sort of story that may linger. For one thing, Bennett is still hard at work in Florida, helping Gov. Rick Scott (R) "reform" education in the Sunshine State.

For another, don't be too surprised if this comes up in a 2016 context.

Bennett rocketed to prominence with the help of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors, such as DeHaan. Bennett is a co-founder of Bush's Chiefs for Change, a group consisting mostly of Republican state school superintendents pushing school vouchers, teacher merit pay and many other policies enacted by Bennett in Indiana.

Keep in mind, Indiana is a pretty Republican state, but when voters went to the polls last year, they chose a new superintendent of public instruction, giving Bennett the boot. Why Florida Republicans welcomed him is unclear, but I'd love to hear whether Jeb Bush helped get him the job.