Access counselor: hidden action is ‘particular damaging’

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt came down pretty hard on the State Board of Education for its recent end-run around the Indiana Open Door Law. But he concluded it didn’t violate the law.

Britt also suggested the legislature may want to close a loophole that let the education board take action on a controversial issue – Indiana’s A-to-F letter grades for schools — without public discussion of what it was doing.

“I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities,” he wrote. “Regardless of intent, the appearance of action taken which is hidden from public view is particularly damaging to the integrity of a public agency and contrary to the purposes of transparency and open access.”

The dispute concerns an Oct. 16 letter from 10 of the 11 board members to legislative leaders, asking them to direct the Legislative Services Agency to calculate school grades, a task normally handled by Indiana Department of Education staff. Elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who chairs the state board, wasn’t consulted and didn’t sign the letter.

Ritz sued, arguing the signing of the letter constituted an illegal secret meeting. But a judge ruled Ritz’s lawsuit was invalid because only the attorney general can sue on behalf of a state official. Tony Lux, Ed Eiler, Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and Julie Hollingsworth took up the torch and filed a complaint with the public access counselor, an appointed state official charged with making sure public-access laws are followed. Continue reading


Indiana and preschool: Here we go again

Signs are good that Indiana could make progress on state-funded preschool in the 2014 session of the state legislature. But signs have been good before, and there’s been little progress to date.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, in his organization day remarks Tuesday, listed early childhood education as one of four issues that “must be our top priorities this session.” And the influential state Chamber of Commerce, in its legislative playbook, cited Indiana’s “critical need for improved preschool opportunities, especially for low-income children whose families may not have the means to provide a high-quality preschool experience or to provide needed learning opportunities in the home.”

But it’s not like the chamber is going whole hog for state-funded preschool. It supports “a framework for the future development of publicly funded preschool initiatives for low-income families.” The programs need to be “focused on those families with greatest need, limited to initiatives that maintain parental choice, focused on concrete learning outcomes and integrated with reforms at the elementary school level …” Lots of caveats there.

Some might argue the legislature created such a framework last spring when it authorized a matching-grant program to help low-income families pay for preschool. But it budgeted only $2 million a year – enough, according to the Family and Social Service Administration, to help about 2 percent of the nearly 22,000 4-year-olds living in poverty in the state. Continue reading

NAEP results win praise for Indiana teachers and students

Indiana had a pretty good bump in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that were released last week. Who gets the credit? It’s unanimous.

  • Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz: “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students.”
  • Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett (via Twitter): “Indiana’s educators and students should be very proud of NAEP results. Your hard work is paying off!”
  • House Education Committee chairman Robert Behning: The gain “validates that we have a lot of great teachers.”

If only they had stopped there. Bennett and others also pointed to the policy changes that he pushed in Indiana. “I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call,” he told Chalkbeat Indiana.

Most of those polices are just now being implemented, or they’re on too small a scale to have a noticeable impact on NAEP scores – with one exception: The requirement that third-graders pass a reading test, called IREAD-3, to be promoted to fourth grade.  Continue reading

Open Door Law: “Any person” can sue … or not?

A judge may decide by Friday whether Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz can proceed with her Open Door Law complaint against the State Board of Education. Attorney General Greg Zoeller says she can’t — that only he can sue on her behalf. According to news coverage, the AG may have case law on his side.

But what does the Open Door Law say? “An action may be filed by any person in any court of competent jurisdiction  … ” And, “The plaintiff need not allege or prove special damage different from that suffered by the public at large.”

Presumably Ritz is a person. You wouldn’t think she would give up her right of access to the courts by being elected to public office. Of course, my record on decoding what state law really means isn’t very good. Lacking a law degree, I tend to think the law means what it says, when obviously that’s not always the case.

Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution, for example, says, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” That would seem nullify Indiana’s voucher program, Continue reading