Lawmakers to push partisan school board elections

Republican legislators said their goal was to “take politics out of education” when they voted in 2017 to replace Indiana’s elected superintendent of public instruction with an appointed state education leader. Now those same folks are poised to put politics back into education at the local level.

Expect the Indiana General Assembly to seriously consider legislation to make local school board elections partisan in its 2022 session, which starts in January and ends in March.

Indiana Statehouse dome. (Indiana General Assembly photo).

“I’ve heard there are more than a handful of legislators that support or intend to file bills of this nature,” Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, told me. “I think there is certainly going to be a bill that moves.”

Reportedly some GOP lawmakers were already talking about this idea in the spring, during the final weeks of the 2021 legislative session. But it gained momentum over the summer and fall as school board meetings became hotbeds of conflict over race, COVID-19 precautions and other issues.

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With Indiana legislative session long past, bitterness still shows

You would think that, nearly two months after the close of the 2011 Indiana legislative session, some of its partisan bitterness might have faded. Then again, maybe not.

Just watch the archived video of a legislative forum that took place last week at the Indiana University School of Education’s summer Education Leadership Conference. In particular, listen to –- and watch the body language of –- Democratic Rep. Terry Goodin, on the one hand, and Republican Rep. Robert Behning and Scott Jenkins, education adviser to Gov. Mitch Daniels, on the other.

These folks don’t seem happy to be on the same stage together.

OK, maybe it’s not Wisconsin, where one state judge claims to have been choked by another during the tense stand-off over Gov. Scott Walker’s union-bashing measures. And where small-town elected officials are being heckled and harassed by their friends and neighbors.

But the Indiana House, at least, is a far cry from the convivial lawmaking body that it was just a few years ago.

Watch Jenkins get ready to pounce when Goodin says it’s “more than disingenuous” for Daniels to claim he was fully funding full-day kindergarten, even though the scant funding for the program means parents will still have to pay for it. Jenkins shoots back that it’s not disingenuous, it’s “just a difference in philosophy” on how to get more kindergartners in school for the entire day.

Possibly the most instructive moment in the forum comes when IU education professor Jonathan Plucker asks the legislators to name one mistake their own caucus made during the session.

Goodin and Behning pretty much ignore the question. If House Democrats made a mistake, Goodin says, it may have been in coming back from their five-week walkout in Illinois. Behning then relentlessly lectures Goodin and his fellow House Democrats for leaving — apparently his own caucus’s performance was flawless.

Democratic Sen. Vi Simpson and Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse, on the other hand, answer the question. Simpson says Democrats made a mistake by not pressing their own ideas about education reform. Kruse says Republicans erred by pushing a controversial right-to-work bill through a House committee – the move that prompted House Democrats to flee to Illinois.

Goodin attributes the conflict to two conflicting philosophical views about education: One side (Democrats) sees the public education system as an asset. The other (Republicans) sees it as a liability.

Here’s another way to look at it.

One side favors a public education system, funded by the public, accountable to the public, transparent and capable of serving all students. In this view, if the system isn’t working for everyone, it’s up to the public – through elected school boards, legislators, etc. – to fix it. This side would argue that such a system has worked well for America, and it deserves a chance to continue.

The other side favors an education marketplace, publicly funded but driven by choice and competition, with parents choosing the best “product” for their own children regardless of what’s best for everyone else. In this view, educational “entrepreneurs” will produce the best offerings to meet the needs of (most) students, as determined by their parents.

For now, at least, the latter view seems to have the upper hand.