House overwhelmingly backs bill to remove Ritz as state board chairwoman

The Indiana House voted overwhelmingly today for a bill that would remove a guarantee in state law that state Superintendent Glenda Ritz will chair the Indiana State Board of Education come July.

It was more bad news for Ritz on a day that started off with another heated clash in her ongoing battle with Gov. Mike Pence over who should set the agenda on the state’s education policy.

In the early afternoon, Pence and Ritz exchanged sharp words over who was at fault for a 2015 ISTEP test expected to take about twice as long for students to complete. Pence signed an order to shorten the test but it’s not clear it can be enforced without Ritz’s cooperation.

By the late afternoon, the House took a big step to empower the state board — 10 members appointed by Republican governors and Ritz, who is the only Democrat holding statewide elected office — to choose whoever they want as chair. State law currently stipulates that Ritz will serve as chair.

House Bill 1609 passed 58-40 in the overwhelmingly Republican House with 12 Republicans joining all the Democrats who were present in voting no.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said the bill was unnecessary, as the legislature oversees education policy, and betrayed deep insecurities about Ritz by Republicans who hold majorities large enough for total control of the House and Senate.

“It’s like the big bully on the school yard that is just masking deep seeded fears,” he said. “What is it you are afraid of?”

In an unusual move, Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, urged his colleagues to pass the bill. The speaker, who normally just referees rather than participates in debates, said the bill was needed to fix the discord among Ritz and the rest of the state board.

“After two years of trying to mediate behind the scenes, I’m ready to say publicly this has gone from dysfunctional to detrimental to students,” Bosma said.

Several Democrats said the move circumvented the 2012 election, arguing Indiana voters rejected the policies of Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, and that many of the problems the state board is facing were caused by the legislature itself.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said the testing problems Pence cited today resulted from the legislature’s moves in the past two years to scrap Indiana’s adoption of Common Core standards and write its own.

Everyone knew that would require new tests and that the switch would be difficult, she said.

“There was a hysteria about it,” she said of the standards change. “We were told it would cause us to have to create a new test. And we had to create new standards.”

But Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said if voters were unhappy with the way Republican lawmakers have managed education, it was not apparent in the 2014 election, where Republicans prevailed in large numbers.

“If people were wanted things to be different they would have taken me out,” she said. “Most of us are still here.”

Senate Bill 1, which would make similar changes to Ritz’s role, could be taken up by the full Senate this week. If both pass, the House and Senate would have to decide which bill to move forward with and sort out the differences in the two bills, a process expected to take place in March and April.