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It’s time to end unease for schools

It’s time to call the Bennett school letter grade scandal exactly what it is – cheating.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show that former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff worked furiously to artificially raise the letter grade of the Christel House Academy, an Indianapolis charter school created by a prominent donor to Bennett and others in the Republican Party.

There are no excuses for the actions taken other than favoritism, cronyism, self-interest and hubris – none of which has a place in public school policymaking.

To my fellow educators who have lived, breathed and worked under the long history of Indiana’s string of accountability laws, there was no joy in the revelations. There was, however, a degree of affirmation. The emails affirmed to teachers that their palpable unease over how Bennett forced his agenda – that “My way or the highway!” approach without including or trusting the expertise of the people on the front lines – was justified.

We felt it last fall when the announcement of school letter grades was delayed. We felt it during the REPA 2 teacher licensure rules changes when Bennett and the State Board tried repeatedly to force revisions without complying with Indiana’s rulemaking process. And we felt it when we learned that out-of-state takeover companies were being paid $800,000 per school to do nothing more than to observe a school for an entire year without lifting a finger to assist those schools.

Sadly, the unease lingers beyond this school letter grade scandal. At the State Board of Education meeting just a few days ago, members of the board openly suggested creating a separate governing and legal structure to operate parallel to the Department of Education – and presumably outside the scope of Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who was elected to oversee Indiana’s public education system. This new display of audacity is not only unnecessary, but it is a monumental waste of taxpayer resources.

As teachers, we often share with our students that adage, “Cheaters only cheat themselves.” Today I understand more clearly how incomplete that simple lesson is. I understand the message, but the damage of this latest revelation runs much deeper. This disgrace taints – and has an effect on – the state’s accountability system and local school communities.

As the newly elected president of the Indiana State Teachers Association in my first week of office, I would like to say to Indiana’s legislators from both sides of the political aisle, to Gov. Mike Pence and to Superintendent Ritz, that it’s time for all of us to turn the page on the aftermath of Bennett and work together to support policies that make sense for all Hoosiers and of which we can all be proud.

Let’s talk.

Teresa Meredith, a teacher from Shelbyville, is president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. She wrote this for Indiana newspapers.