By Alec Gray
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz would keep her position as chair of the State Board of Education through the end of her current term under a new proposal lawmakers are considering with just days left in their legislative session.
The plan would still give the state board the authority to elect its own leader – but not until Jan. 1, 2017, just after the next election of the superintendent of public instruction.
Stripping Ritz, a Democrat, of her power at the state board has been a hot-button issue throughout the session with majority Republicans pushing to let the board pick its own chair as soon as this summer. They’ve argued that the current setup, which has Ritz chair a board of members all appointed by a GOP governor, has led to dysfunction that is unacceptable.
But Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle – who is chairing the joint House-Senate conference committee looking for an agreement on competing versions of Senate Bill 1 – said the decision to keep Ritz in her position as chair for now is a compromise that is less about political pressure and more about other aspects of the legislation that should strengthen the board’s hand.
Among those provisions are some that would give the state board more control over the ISTEP exam and make the board a state educational authority, as well as the DOE, which gives both agencies standing with the federal government. The proposal also revamps the board’s makeup and dictates a number of board operating procedures, including how many members must be present to act and when agendas must be prepared.
John Barnes, the director of legislative affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the agency is happy that Ritz will not be removed as chairman. But he said he still thinks the argument is politically driven.
Democrats and advocates for Ritz have long argued that removing her as the board chair now would disenfranchise voters.
“So from that standpoint, certainly that’s better,” Barnes said. “We feel like its ridiculous from the beginning to manufacture this kind of dysfunction that everybody wants to call it when in fact it all seems to be purely politics and it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Since Ritz was elected more than two years ago – defeating Republican Tony Bennett – she and board members have bickered about not just significant policies involving testing and school accountability but also small, administrative issues including who gets to put items on the board agenda and when a policy is eligible for a vote. At one point, Ritz sued the board for taking action behind her back and, at another point, she walked out of a meeting.
Holdman chose not to hear public testimony on the proposal Monday, despite proposing language that had not passed the House or Senate earlier in the session. He said because of the time crunch, he only wanted lawmakers weighing in.
SB 1, in its current form, would give more power to the State Board of Education to not only set education policy in the state, but also to be more a part of the implementation of those policies, something the DOE has historically done.
Barnes said that is a dangerous idea because there are times when a quick decision must be made and the schools don’t have time to wait for the DOE to consult with the board.
“We just think its always confusing if you try to put two different entities in control,” Barnes said. “There isn’t time for two different entities to consult about what’s going on so we feel like that’s a big mistake. You don’t want to put a volunteer board in charge of ISTEP when it takes experts and people who are experts in student assessment.”
The new proposal would also shrink the board from 11 members to 9. The governor would appoint six members to the board, with only four coming from his political party. The speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate would each get one appointee.
Holdman said shrinking the board would allow members to work more efficiently and work better together as a team.
“Most Hoosiers acknowledge that the current discord and dysfunction on the State Board of Education is not in the best interest of Hoosier students,” Holdman said in a statement after the meeting. “As state lawmakers charged with setting state education policy, we have a responsibility to do something about it. I believe this legislation is a solid move in the right direction that will benefit our kids in the classroom.”
Democrats said they were upset that the board would be stacked for the majority 6-3 and create a completely partisan system.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he thinks the elected superintendent needs to have more power and is upset that language was taken out that required majority legislative leaders to at least consult with the minority leaders before selecting their appointees.
“This is going to be a completely partisan type of a board,” Lanane said. “There’s a good reason that the elected superintendent of public instruction serves as the chair. All those other appointments on that board are not elected, and underneath this scenario, they could have minimal qualifications.
“I think it would be an excellent time to restore the power, to affirm the power of the elected superintendent of public instruction as the chair of this board,” he said. “We’ll put that out there. We’ll see if they accept that or not.”
Alec Gray is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.