Florida education commissioner under fire over controversial emails

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Florida's education commissioner is under fire after reporters with The Associated Press dug up some email messages sent by Tony Bennett when he was in charge of public schools in Indiana.

Those messages appear to show Bennett changed the grading system to help a political donor, so Channel 9's Lori Brown asked Bennett why he recently made major changes to the Florida grading system.

The emails written by Bennett and obtained by the AP appear to show when Bennett was Indiana schools chief, his team was frantically overhauling the school grading system because a charter school owned by an influential donor was about to get a bad grade.

Bennett wrote, "Anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

The grading director explained the school scored a C, the result of "terrible" 10th-grade algebra results.

Bennett responded, "I am more than a little miffed about this, I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months."

He later suggested, "We can revise the rule."

In the end, Christel House got an A.

On Tuesday, Bennett held a conference call from Tallahassee, saying, "It is absurd that anyone would believe I would change a grade of a school based on a political donor."

Bennett said Indiana adjusted its grading formula because it unfairly punished 13 schools that did not have 11th- and 12th-grade classes, but Bennett made headlines as education commissioner in Florida this summer when he pushed for changes so no Florida school could drop more than one grade.

Linda Kobert, an outspoken critic of high-stakes testing, has always believed the grading system is political.

"You take one donor whose checkbook is in danger, and then they look at the entire system," she said.

The Florida Board of Education chose Bennett for Florida education commissioner in December. He had just been voted out of office in Indiana after one term.