New tensions begin to emerge over state's NCLB response

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz put aside their differences over who should take the lead in making education policy last month for the public fight over new state academic standards. But their tensions seem poised to reemerge as the state scrambles to respond to a warning from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education sent Ritz a letter Thursday giving 60 days for her to explain how Indiana will shore up areas where it says the state has fallen short of what it promised to do in 2012 in return for release from some rules of the No Federal No Child Left Behind law.

That waiver, issued in 2012, was dependent in large part on Indiana’s promise to adopt standards that would lead to graduates who are prepared for college, and federal officials are concerned about Indiana’s abandonment of the Common Core standards and tests. It wants assurances the state will keep its promises.

Just last month, Ritz and Pence stood firmly together to support the state’s new standards, which were endorsed both by the education department, which she oversees, and by the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which reports to Pence and is viewed by some as a rival to Ritz’s department. The board voted 10-1 to adopt them last week.

But the other areas that the U.S. Department of Education identified for concern could reignite longstanding divisions between the two officials. Last year, each tried to claim a larger role in setting the state’s education policy, and each echoed that approach today.

In a letter to Ritz today, Pence said he was “disappointed and concerned” by federal education department’s findings that Indiana was not on track to comply with its agreement in nine specific areas and urged her to work with the Indiana State Board of Education, which he appoints, to make corrections.

One of his appointees to that board, Brad Oliver, said the state board and Ritz’s office were “long overdue” to have conversations about her handling of Indiana NCLB waiver, and called for the board to play a more active role going forward.

“The board and the department need to be in consultation about what our response will be,” he said.

But in her statement Friday, Ritz only mentioned the state board when talking about a subcommittee and used the singular tense to describe her planned response, which she suggested was complicated by the Indiana legislature when it voided Common Core standards and set a July 1 deadline for new standards to be set.

“My department is prepared to demonstrate full compliance with our flexibility waiver and submit amendments that are necessary due to legislative action that has been taken since the 2013 legislative session,” she said.

“Moving forward,” Ritz said, “we will respond to (the U.S. Department of Education) within the next two months with amendments that capture steps we have taken to ensure full compliance with our flexibility waiver. I look forward to working with (U.S.) Secretary (of Education Arne) Duncan to improve education for all Indiana students.”

Less than two hours after Ritz issued her statement, Oliver followed with a call for the board to hold a special meeting to address the waiver problem.

“Pursuant to the meeting procedures of the Indiana State Board of Education, I have called upon my colleagues to join me in requesting a special meeting of the state board of education to inquire as the reasons and circumstances that have resulted in so many areas of our current federal waiver being identified as not meeting expectations,” he said.

Oliver laid blame on the education department for the state’s waiver troubles.

“The findings in the (U.S. Department of Education) monitoring report suggest serious problems with the ability of the Indiana Department of Education to monitor compliance and provide technical assistance to Indiana schools in critical areas such as teacher and principal evaluation, assisting Indiana’s lowest performing schools, and supporting schools in raising academic achievement,” he said.

Signed in 2002, NCLB asked all states to establish accountability systems that assured every student would score proficient on standardized tests by 2014. Since President Obama’s election, though, he has pushed for congress to make revisions to relax rules, which could label many schools as failing, and sanctions that could limit how they use federal money.

He also allowed states to apply for waivers, permitting them to substitute state-level accountability systems in place of NCLB requirements in return for adopting policies the administration preferred.

Indiana’s waiver allowed the state’s A to F system to be used to judge schools, replacing expectations under NCLB that some have termed unrealistic. In return, Indiana promised to adopt “college and career ready” academic standards, institute a teacher evaluation system and make other changes.

At the time, the state was moving quickly to implement Common Core, standards which 45 states ultimately adopted and that Indiana’s state board adopted in 2010. Federal officials signed off on that, accepting Common Core standards as “college and career ready.” They also approved of Indiana’s plan to use a Common Core-linked exam being developed by a consortium of states as its new state test, to institute the teacher evaluation system lawmakers approved here in 2011 and to monitor improvement efforts at low-scoring schools.

Since the waiver agreement was made, however, Indiana has seen some dramatic education policy changes.

Ritz defeated Tony Bennett, her predecessor and champion of Common Core, teacher evaluation and school accountability, in the 2012 election and took control of the state’s compliance efforts. An order from Pence withdrew Indiana from the consortium, in favor of instead ranking its state tests on its own, and lawmakers voted first to pause implementation of Common Core standards and then to void them altogether.

When federal officials conducted an annual evaluation of Indiana’s compliance with the waiver in August of 2013, Ritz was in the midst of a complete overhaul of the state’s system of monitoring troubled schools.

Ritz noted that in her statement.

“We have spoken with (the U.S. Department of Education) regularly about the work this division is doing, and they have indicated they are pleased with our progress to this date,” she said.

Oliver and Pence aren’t convinced. They want answers and a role for the state board to assure the waiver continues.

“Because several of the key findings in the monitoring report involve state decisions where the state board of education and the department of education both hold statutory roles and responsibilities, including standards, assessment, teacher evaluation and interventions in under performing schools,” Pence wrote to Ritz, “I am writing to urge the state board of education to assist the Indiana Department of Education in developing a comprehensive remediation plan that addresses the concerns laid out in the monitoring report.”

Pence and Ritz have been at odds over who controls the state’s education policy since last summer, when Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

The center, using money that had previously been managed by the education department under the state superintendent, hired separate staff for the state board. Pence said the center was designed to coordinate education policy across multiple agencies, including the education department, the state board, the Education Roundtable and the Commission for Higher Education.

But Ritz said it was a power grab.

Tensions between Ritz and the board boiled over in October, when Ritz filed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming the board held an illegal meeting, and in November, when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting over the objections of the other members.

Since January, however, hostility seemed to abate. Ritz and the board agreed on some new rules for how board meeting should be managed. Pence came out against Common Core standards in his State of the State speech and endorsed the Ritz-led process of setting new standards.

Just last month, Ritz and Pence stood firmly together in the face of laughs and jeers from Common Core opponents who fought against the new standards that were endorsed both by the education department and by CECI. The board voted 10-1 to adopt them last week.

Ritz declined comment late today about Oliver’s proposal for a special board meeting.