From the Statehouse

Pence calls for plan to strip Ritz of board leadership, kills CECI

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz could be removed from a lead role on the Indiana State Board of Education if a sweeping overhaul of the Indiana’s education policy structure proposed by Gov. Mike Pence today is enacted by the state legislature.

Speaking today at the annual legislative conference at the Indiana Convention Center about a month before the 2015 lawmaking session is due to begin, Pence stunned the audience by saying he had signed an executive order to dissolve his controversial Center for Education and Career Innovation, a policy-making rival to the Indiana Department of Education that Ritz has persistently complained about. It will cease to exist early next year, he said.

Ritz has repeatedly argued CECI has sought to undermine her authority and is at the center of the state board’s frequent clashes.

“I am aware of the controversy that has surrounded this center since its creation,” Pence said. “Somebody has to take the first step to restore harmony and trust.”

But even as Pence pitched that move as an olive branch, he paired it with a proposal that would likely remove Ritz from a lead role in state board policymaking. He asked lawmakers to elect a replacement for Ritz as the state board’s chairwoman, potentially allowing the board to more directly manage the education department.

Ritz’s role as head of the department is spelled out in the state constitution, but her place as board chairwoman can be changed by the legislature. If adopted, Pence’s plan would allow the 10 gubernatorial appointees who serve with her to choose one of their own to lead the board.

In a statement, Ritz thanked Pence for dissolving CECI but did not directly address how his proposals might affect her standing.

“While dissolving CECI is certainly welcome news, there are other aspects of the governor’s legislative agenda that are concerning for public education in our state,” she said. “I look forward to working with the legislature and the governor on the Department of Education’s legislative agenda and other critical issues during the upcoming session.”

Democrats and labor leaders, however, were quick to describe Pence’s actions as self-serving.

Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the Republicans paranoid and insecure, unable to work with Ritz — the lone Democrat in the statehouse who holds a statewide office — without changing the rules.

“Let (Ritz) do her job,” he said. “Let her talk. And then the people can decide in the next election. They have plenty of arrows in their quiver to accomplish what it is that they want to accomplish and they then are just going to stomp on voters’ expectations when they sent Glenda Ritz to Indianapolis. At best, it raises eyebrows, and at worst, causes you to charge that they simply don’t want any sort of dissension or alternative points of view.”

That could ultimately harm the state’s efforts to provide the best possible education system, said Rick Muir, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions.

“It’s detrimental to public education,” he said. “The people elected Glenda Ritz and we have never had a state superintendent, nor a Department of Education, treated in the manner we’re seeing them treated. It’s nothing but foul play. They couldn’t win the election so they’re taking everything away.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the larger statewide union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes the dissolving of CECI will make it easier for the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to communicate.

“I think it takes away one of the initial barriers between a clear path between the state board and the superintendent,” she said. “We need to continue to allow the person who was elected to that job to do her job.”

Ritz and Pence both were elected in 2012, but it was Democrat Ritz’s stunning upset win over her predecessor, Tony Bennett, that disrupted what had been a consistent vision for education shared by Bennett and the all-Republican leaders of the state’s executive and legislative branch.

Soon after, Ritz was butting heads with Pence and the 10 Republican appointees who serve with her on the state board. Ritz wanted to push a very different vision for overseeing education in Indiana. As a candidate, she advocated for a reconsideration of some of the testing and accountability-based reforms that had been favored by Republicans.

The increasing tension boiled over late last year when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion she opposed regarding the process for setting academic standards.

The ongoing disagreements over when Ritz can make unilateral decisions and when she must follow the board’s guidance is revisited at nearly every board meeting, including a long debate on Wednesday that ended with the the board approving a measure to ask the legislature to alter the responsibilities of the board and the state superintendent over her objections.

“Something had to be done,” said state board member Brad Oliver, who attended Pence’s speech. “We could not stay on the course we were on. Nobody’s happy. It’s always been a shared governance system. When any one entity starts saying ‘I am the sole authority’ we’re in trouble.”

Pence’s speech was billed as a preview of his entire legislative agenda, but he pivoted quickly to education as a focus of nearly all the proposals he announced today.

“I think the coming legislative session should be (an) education session and we should focus on our kids and teachers and what’s happening in our classrooms in Indiana,” he said.

Among other major proposals he said would be coming would be an overhaul of the state school funding system to emphasize “performance,” expanding on a smaller effort by the legislature to provide extra aid for districts with good academic results. He will also ask to expand a program that provides bonuses to highly rated teachers, he said.

For a program he called “freedom to teach,” Pence said he would ask the legislature to give the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.” More information on that proposal would come later, he said.

Pence also called for a further expansion of choice by allowing more money to flow to private schools that accept vouchers and bringing public charter schools to more cities.

Although Republicans hold huge majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson, was hopeful there would be room for compromise on Pence’s proposals.

“The governor doesn’t always get what he has asks for with the supermajority Republican legislature,” he said. “Maybe there will be some thought that we have to study that a little bit more before we actually enact it this coming session.”

rebuffed

Charter applications rejected by Memphis school officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.