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It's official: Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigns

Tony Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida education commissioner following two days of controversy over school grades in his home state of Indiana.

He made the announcement at a news conference in Tallahassee late Thursday morning.

“The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children,” Bennett said.

Coming to Florida from the Hoosier state last January, Bennett had faced mounting calls for his resignation in the wake of revelations, first reported by The Associated Press, that he interceded on behalf of an Indiana charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor.

On Thursday, he called those reports "malicious and unfounded."

His resignation comes as a major setback for Gov. Rick Scott and state education leaders, who are working to overhaul Florida’s system of school accountability and assessment in compliance with the national Common Core standards.

“I’m saddened by Commissioner Bennett’s departure,” state Board of Education member Sally Bradshaw wrote in an email to the Herald/Times. “This is a loss for Florida’s students.”

The Florida Department of Education has had a revolving door of leaders during Scott’s 31 months in office. Including Bennett, there have been three different education commissions and two interim education commissioners.

Bennett, a nationally recognized education reformer, came on board after losing reelection in Indiana.

His tenure encountered some early bumps in June, when superintendents leaned on him to institute a “safety net” to prevent school grades from dropping dramatically. Bennett had some misgivings, but ultimately conceded.

The exercise sparked a statewide dialogue about the validity of school grades, which dipped despite the padding. One member of the state Board of Education questioned if the state had to release grades at all.

Amid the controversy, scathing emails published by The Associated Press showed that Bennett had made changes to the school grading formula in Indiana after learning that a high-profile charter school would be awarded a “C” grade.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in one email.

The formula was tweaked and Christel House received an “A.”

Bennett has denied that the decision was motivated by politics. He said he ordered the change because Christel House lost points for not having a graduation rate, despite only enrolling students from kindergarten through 10th grade.

A dozen other schools benefitted from the change, he said.

“It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of school based on a political donor, or based on trying to hide a school from accountability,” Bennett told reporters Tuesday. “It’s fictitious, at best, and it’s totally unfounded. What we did do is make sure we were getting a transparent policy right for Indiana schools and Indiana schoolchildren.”

Bennett is a longtime ally of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Florida’s Future has driven the state’s education policy for the past decade. He is active in Bush’s coalition of state education leaders, Chiefs for Change.

Bennett said Thursday, “I end my tenure with my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education.”

His departure could prove problematic for the already unstable education department.

He had brought several people from Indiana, who now hold top jobs in Florida, including Chief of Staff Dale Chu, Deputy Commissioner Will Krebs and Common Core liaison Anna Shults. Chu and Krebs were involved in the emails published by the AP. Observers are questioning whether they should stay in Florida.

Andy Smarick, former deputy education commissioner for New Jersey, said a key to successful school accountability is continuity in leadership and coherence to a strong plan.

“It just doesn’t help a state to keep changing leadership,” Smarick said, noting Florida’s five leaders in less than three years. “It’s hard for districts and schools to latch onto a meaningful, lasting plan."

He suggested that Florida will have a tough time finding a new schools chief, given the constant churn since Scott’s arrival.

“People qualified to be state chiefs take very seriously the political environment in the states they are considering,” Smarick said. “They know changes in elections, changes in state boards, can leave them quickly without a job. That’s an issue.”

Mike Petrilli, editor of the Education Next reform journal, agreed that finding another high-flying commissioner would be difficult for Florida.

“Good luck with that,” Petrilli said.

State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said he believed Bennett’s departure was the right thing for Florida if it means maintaining integrity for the state’s accountability systems.

Legg said questions about Bennett’s actions in Indiana could darken Florida’s efforts.

“We need to move forward to eliminate any question of improprieties,” Legg said, stressing he had heard no accusations that Bennett had acted inappropriately in recent grade formula changes in Florida.

Legg did not worry about finding a new commissioner.

“Florida is a dynamic state where things are cutting edge,” he said. “I imagine we will be very attractive for the next person they interview.”

But Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho urged state leaders to focus on policy.

“As long as we fixate on the who, the what goes unfixed,” Carvalho wrote in a statement. “There should be no celebration of the commissioner’s resignation. For our children’s sake, let’s get accountability right.”

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Rick Scott Only Likes His Own Babies

"The frugality carried over the Columbia/HCA’s hospitals. “Gloves rip easily,” complained hospital workers in Florida. In California, some nurses protested “filthy conditions” and being “stretched to the limit as the hospital slashed the ratio of nurses to patients”
“I sometimes had to watch 72 patients heart monitors at a time,” one nurse reported. “I was told, either do it, or there’s the door.” In Indianapolis nurses complained to state authorities that babies in the neonatal unit were left unattended for as long as three hours.


How to Build An Empire

Scott’s goal: to lay claim to 25 percent of the nation’s hospitals. He felt the country had too many hospitals, and was hoping for a shakeout that would cut the number in half, leaving Columbia with a larger slice of what was left. To be sure, excess capacity was a problem in some parts of the country, but Scott’s solution was chillingly Darwinian. In his vision of the future, the hospitals most likely to succumb to competition would be “teaching hospitals and children’s hospitals”—institutions where operating costs are highest. His business plan left no room for unprofitable hospitals that nonetheless serve vital needs.
Meanwhile, within HCA Scott was known as a bully. “I never witnessed such an extent of demeaning, debasing and devaluing behavior as I personally experienced at Columbia,” one administrative director told the New York Times.
But if you brought in the money, you were rewarded handsomely. Internal hospital records would later show that hospital executives were paid enormous bonuses, not for reducing infections or lowering mortality rates, but for meeting financial targets such as “growth in admissions and surgery cases.” In 1995 one-fourth of Columbia’s administrators won bonuses equaling 80 percent of their salaries—or more. When bonuses become that large, some critics charge, they no longer function simply as incentives. They invite fraud. Scott also did his best to avoid needy patients, questioning whether hospitals should throw their doors open to one and all. “Do we have an obligation to provide health care for everybody? Where do we draw the line? Is any fast-food restaurant obliged to feed everyone who shows up?
Meanwhile, Wall Street scrambled to finance Columbia/HCA’s growth. The stock spiraled, and Scott used the company’s ever-more valuable stock to acquire more hospitals. He quickly became a serial acquirer. Growth for the sake of growth. That was the mantra of the 1990s. Until the music stopped.
In Scott’s case, that happened a short three years after he became CEO of Columbia/HCA. In July of 1997, the FBI swooped down on HCA hospitals in five states. Within weeks, three executives were indicted on charges of Medicare fraud, and the board had ousted Scott.
The investigation revealed that the hospital chain had been bilking Medicare while simultaneously handing over kickbacks and perks to physicians who steered patients to its hospitals. One can only wonder how many of those patients really needed to be hospitalized—and how many were harmed.
The company did not fight the charges. In 2000, HCA (which by then had expunged “Columbia” from its name) pleaded guilty to no fewer than 14 felonies. Over the next two years, it would pay a total of $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines."

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