Gov. Eric Holcomb says he wants Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction to be appointed by the governor, not elected by the voters. It’s not the worst education proposal we’re likely to hear this legislative session. But it’s up to Holcomb to make a case for the change.
His fellow Republicans raised this idea in 2012, after Democratic Glenda Ritz upset Republican incumbent Tony Bennett in the superintendent election. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce made appointing the schools chief part of its 2014 legislative agenda. But changing the law when there was a Republican governor and a Democratic superintendent would have been a slap in the face to the voters who favored Ritz. Republicans rightly recognized that.
In November 2016, voters chose Holcomb as governor and Republican Jennifer McCormick, over Ritz, as state superintendent. According to the Indianapolis Star, House Speaker Brian Bosma will sponsor legislation that will let the governor appoint the superintendent in 2021, after McCormick’s term ends.
Indiana is one of 13 states that elect their chief state school officers, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In 15 states, governors appoint the schools chief. In 22, the position is appointed by the state board.
The argument for having the governor appoint the state superintendent is that the two state officials in charge of education policy should be on the same page. That makes sense, but only if it’s the right page. Sure, it can be messy if the governor and superintendent work at cross purposes, which was sometimes the case with Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Ritz. But you could argue that Ritz managed to be a highly visible advocate for public education and maybe check some of Pence’s more extreme impulses.
It’s also the case that electing state superintendents has served Hoosiers pretty well. We elected the moderate and scrupulously nonpartisan Republican Suellen Reed to four terms in office, including three times when we chose Democratic governors. And in 2012, we rejected Bennett, whose over-the-top approach antagonized teachers and public school parents.
Indiana’s experience with a governor hand-picking a superintendent came in 2008, when Gov. Mitch Daniels reportedly nudged Reed off the GOP ticket and replaced her with Bennett. That didn’t work out so well.
But I’m hoping McCormick will do a good job of running the Indiana Department of Education and stand up to the anti-public education partisans in the GOP legislative caucuses. If she does that – and if Bosma’s bill becomes law – she should be reappointed in 2021, regardless of who’s governor.