Florida's education commissioner resigned Thursday amid allegations that he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana's school chief.
Tony Bennett announced his immediate resignation at a news conference, saying that he while he did nothing wrong he didn't want to be a distraction to ongoing efforts to overhaul Florida's education system. Emails published by The Associated Press this week show that Bennett and his Indiana staff scrambled last fall to ensure Christel DeHaan's school received an A, despite poor 10th-grade algebra scores that initially earned it a C.
Bennett called that interpretation "malicious and unfounded" and said he would call for Indiana's inspector general to look into the allegations because he is certain he will be cleared of wrongdoing.
He said it would be unfair to Gov. Rick Scott "to have to spend my time and the State Board (of Education's) time, as things continue to trickle out, defending myself." He called the allegations "politically motivated." He said the decision to step down was his and that both Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush had urged him to remain on the job.
"The decision to resign is mine and mine only because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult we lose the discussion about making life better for children," Bennett said.
Bennett lost his re-election bid last November in Indiana. He was hired by Florida as its education commissioner, a nonelected post that pays $275,000, in December.
Scott, at an appearance in South Florida, said he had not fired Bennett or demanded his resignation.
"He let me know that he was going to resign. It was his decision," Scott said in Delray Beach. "Tony did a good job here. ... We're doing well in education." Scott refused to answer questions about the accusations against Bennett in Indiana. Bennett is the third education commissioner to leave office since Scott became governor in January 2011.
Bush, in a statement, praised Bennett for the work he had done in Indiana.
"Tony started every day with the focus of creating a system that would equip kids to achieve their God-given potential," he said.
The Florida State Board of Education will hold an emergency meeting Friday. Board members are expected to name Pam Stewart as an interim commissioner. Stewart, who is currently chancellor for the division of public schools, served as interim commissioner before Bennett was hired.
Stewart would take the helm at a critical time. Bennett was poised to decide whether Florida should remain with a national consortium or develop its own set of tests for new common core standards that are scheduled to take effect. Florida's Republican legislative leaders want the state to develop its own assessments.
Bennett's decision to resign came even though he had gotten support from board members after the initial reports from Indiana came out.
"I regret that Commissioner Bennett feels he must resign, but I respect his decision," said John Padget, a state board member from Key West. "He has spent countless hours focused on what's best for Florida's children, and I'll miss him."
Indiana uses A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive. A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.
After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he fired off an email last Sept. 12 to his chief of staff.
"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."
Bennett, who had been reworking Florida's grading system as the state's education commissioner, denied that DeHaan's Christel House Academy school received special treatment. He said earlier this week that discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.
The revelations that Bennett and Indiana officials scrambled to change the grade of one school come amid a strong debate over Florida's grading system.
Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.
That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. Bennett's plan was even opposed by the education foundation set up by Bush. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.