August 2, 2013

Bowen says he'll keep pushing for controversial education reforms

Maine's education chief reaffirms his support for the ideas of Tony Bennett, who stepped down as Florida's education commissioner amid scandal on Thursday.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Maine's education commissioner reaffirmed his commitment to reforms embraced by Tony Bennett, who has influenced the LePage administration's education policy and who resigned abruptly Thursday as education commissioner in Florida.

click image to enlarge

In this March 2013 file photo, Tony Bennett, Florida education commissioner, delivers the keynote speech during the Governor's Conference on Education at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine. Maine's education commissioner reaffirmed his commitment to reforms embraced by Bennett, who resigned abruptly Thursday amid a scandal.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen: "Reform isn’t easy, but as Tony (Bennett) knew, those who are content (with) the status quo will always push back against new approaches and new ideas,”

File photo

Bennett stepped down after an Associated Press report showed that, when he was Indiana's education commissioner, he and his staff altered the state's A-to-F school grading formula to ensure that a key Republican donor's school got an A instead of a C.

Bennett left that post last year before becoming Florida's education chief.

Bennett's reforms, including the A-to-F grading system, have been embraced by Gov. Paul LePage and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen. Bennett headlined the governor's education conference in March at the Augusta Civic Center.

On Thursday, Bowen reaffirmed his support for Bennett's reforms, saying Bennett is a "trailblazing education leader."

"Reform isn't easy, but as Tony knew, those who are content with the status quo will always push back against new approaches and new ideas," Bowen said in a written statement. "Nevertheless, improving outcomes for our children makes the hard work and the political potshots that come with it more than worthwhile."

Bennett and Bowen are members of Chiefs for Change, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education reform group, comprising mostly Republican state education commissioners who advocate school vouchers, teacher merit pay and other policies.

Bowen also defended Maine's A-to-F grading system, which was implemented in the spring and drew intense criticism from schools and education groups.

Bowen said opposition to the system came from "those served by the status quo in their attempt to undermine meaningful accountability."

The Maine Education Association, the state's teachers union, has consistently opposed the LePage administration on school grading.

On Thursday, Lois Kilby-Chesley, the union's president, said in a prepared statement that she hopes Bennett's resignation will prompt Maine to stop following his "crooked path to school grading."

"Having heard Mr. Bennett present at Governor LePage's forum on education this past spring, we recognize that his values do not represent those of Maine citizens," Kilby-Chesley said. "His most recent entry into the news for allegedly changing school grades is an example of the MEA's greatest fears about the grading of schools."

The Associated Press report was based on emails sent during Bennett's tenure in Indiana.

The emails showed that Bennett asked his staff to explore the legality of changing the grade of Christel House, a charter school, from a C to an A. The school's founder, Christel DeHaan, has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett, according to The Associated Press.

Maine has corrected the grades of three schools since the system was implemented in the spring. There have been no allegations of wrongdoing over the changes, but critics continue to assail the grading system's methodology.

Indiana uses the grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students who seek state-funded vouchers to attend private school must first spend a year in public school.

Bennett denied that Christel House received special treatment. He estimated that 12 or 13 schools benefited from a change in Indiana's A-to-F formula. But the emails obtained by the AP showed that DeHaan's charter school drove the changes.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors helped lift Bennett to the national stage. He has since appeared in states including Maine to advocate for his education reforms.

According to a report in the Tampa Bay Times, Bennett said the reports showing that he changed Indiana's grading system for a Republican donor were "malicious and unfounded." He said he was resigning to avoid becoming a distraction to Gov. Rick Scott's education reform efforts in Florida.

Chiefs for Change released a written statement defending Bennett.

"Over the last two days, opponents of education reform have raised allegations and drawn conclusions based on email exchanges that have been taken out of context," the unsigned statement read. "Politics should take a back seat in the debate on what is best for our students."

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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