The way Indiana legislators’ are trying to fix the state’s education governance system calls to mind what an American officer reportedly said during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The lawmakers say they want to save the system from the dysfunction that’s come with feuding between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the other 10 State Board of Education members, all appointed by Republican governors.
But their approach is to blow up a structure that has served Indiana well for many years, even when the elected superintendent and governor were from different parties.
Their main weapon is House Bill 1486, approved last week on a party-line vote by the House Education Committee. It transfers significant elements of education authority from the Department of Education, headed by Ritz, to the State Board of Education.
The bill authorizes the board to hire an executive director and staff and to employ outside contractors. And the board is going to need a lot of help if it takes on all the duties described in the bill. They include new responsibility for turnaround schools, teacher evaluation, standardized tests, state learning standards and audits of federal and state education programs.
A lot of the media attention around Ritz has focused on HB 1609, which the education committee also approved last week. It would remove Ritz as board chair and let board members elect their own presiding officer. That’s part of Gov. Mike Pence’s agenda.
But HB 1486 is arguably a much bigger deal. It effectively turns the State Board of Education into a second administrative body in charge of education, overturning the approach in which the board set policy and the Department of Education was in charge of operations. Pence said in December he was disbanding his Center for Education and Career Innovation as a peace offering; this bill brings it back on steroids.
HB 1486 also changes Indiana’s teacher-evaluation law to let the board dictate how heavily to weight “objective measures,” such as test scores. Remember that, when the legislature enacted the law in 2011, officials promised this would be a local decision.
Ritz argued against the bills, pointing out that her department has worked with the state board to carry out the legislature’s directives to develop new standards and assessments and create new rubrics for evaluating schools.
“There should be a full summer study committee dedicated to this topic of defining roles,” she said. “This will provide much needed accountability to both the General Assembly and the voters.”
Also pending are several bills to change the make-up of the State Board of Education. One of them, Senate Bill 1 – the 1 signals it’s a top priority for leadership – would drop requirements that the board include teachers and reflect political and geographic balance.
You can argue the governor should appoint the state superintendent, to avoid their having competing agendas. Indiana is one of only nine states that elect both the governor and the chief state school officer, according to the Education Commission of the States.
But if Indiana Republicans want to change the way the superintendent is chosen — or if they don’t think Ritz is doing a good job — they should recruit and run a candidate who can win the next election. Using legislation to undermine Ritz comes off as a slap in the face to the 1,332,755 voters who supported her in 2012.