From the Statehouse

Tony Bennett guilty of ethics charge for campaign work

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

Former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett was found guilty of violating an ethics law by a state panel today and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement.

Bennett and his Indiana Department of Education employees spent his work time and used office computers and telephones for the campaign, Inspector General David Thomas found. Last September, the Associated Press reported it had obtained documents through public records requests that showed two Republican donor lists were stored on education department office computers and that he and his staff discussed 2012 campaign details via email. Bennett’s calendar also listed what appeared to be campaign phone call appointments.

Those allegations grew out of a larger accusation: that Bennett had intentionally manipulated the state’s A to F grading system to benefit a wealthy ally who had contributed to his political campaign in the past. On that score, the Indiana Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing when it adopted Thomas’ report.

Afterward, Bennett’s lawyer declared the nearly year-long ordeal over, describing his client’s actions as an easily correctable oversight but a violation nonetheless.

“While there were violations, not every violation of the rule is serious,” attorney Larry Mackey said. “Dr. Bennett, as a political officeholder, had every right to engage in political activity unlike state employees. But he has to follow the rules and the rules are, write a policy. He did not write that policy. If he had written that policy we would not be here right now and there would not be any violations.”

But when it came to A to F grades, Thomas’s report relied almost entirely on a report commissioned by the Indiana legislature that last fall said the grade change raising Christel House charter school from a C to an A was “plausible.”

Written by John Grew and William Sheldrake of the Indiana-based company Policy Analytics, the legislative report found that the questions raised about Christel House led education department staff to discover a programming error that depressed grades for 165 schools and to reconsider the interpretation for how to grade about a dozen schools with unusual grade configurations. The change affected all those schools, not just Christel House.

But that report stopped short of examining the motivations of Bennett and his staff with regard to Christel House. The authors did not address why email conversations in September 2012 focused so heavily on Christel House or explore the wide range of options proposed to raise its grade before it was discovered that the technical correction and rule interpretation change raised the school to an A.

“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” Grew and Sheldrake wrote.

Bennett was not at the hearing today, Mackey said, because he was on a family vacation. Mackey said the end of the ethics investigation should close the case entirely.

He pointed out that Bennett was among those who called for the ethics investigation that ended with today’s fine.

“He didn’t like the answer, to some extent, but he accepted it,” Mackey said.

getting to know you

These 10 Colorado lawmakers are rethinking how the state pays for its public schools

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Ten Colorado lawmakers, many with longstanding ties to the education community, are set to begin debating the future of Colorado’s school finance system.

The legislative group tasked with studying and making recommendations about how the state pays for public education includes former teachers and superintendents, a former State Board of Education member and a practicing charter school lawyer.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, will lead the committee during its first year.

Garnett helped establish the committee earlier this year when he co-sponsored House Bill 1340 with state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. Lundeen also will serve on the panel.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, will be the vice-chair.

The committee was formed against a backdrop of fear that the state’s schools would face deep budget cuts next school year. However, lawmakers at the last minute averted putting the state’s schools in an even deeper financial hole.

Still, lawmakers from both parties and members of the state’s education community agree the funding system is outdated and in need of a massive overhaul. The state last made significant changes to the system in 1994.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for July 24. Among its first decisions will be selecting a third-party consultant to help with research and guide discussions and decisions.

Here’s the full committee:

  • State Rep. Alec Garnett, Denver Democrat, chair
  • State Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs Republican, vice chair
  • State Sen. Janet Buckner, Aurora Democrat
  • State Sen. Bob Gardner, Colorado Springs Republican
  • State Rep. Millie Hamner, Frisco Democrat
  • State Rep. Timothy Leonard, Evergreen Republican
  • State Rep. Paul Lundeen, Monument Republican
  • State Sen. Michael Merrifield, Colorado Springs Democrat
  • State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Sterling Republican
  • State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Arvada Democrat

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.