The basics of Mike Pence on education: A battle for control

(This post is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other posts, see this story on why Indiana matters when it comes to education.)

Just more than a year into his term, Gov. Mike Pence took a rare and risky step by surprising the Senate Education Committee by personally testifying for a preschool bill he was pushing.

The bill, to create a small preschool pilot program in five counties, was Pence’s top education priority. He knew several fellow Republicans were strongly opposed and that the bill was likely to be defeated by the committee.

He tried to persuade them to reconsider.

He said he understood that some believed education before Kindergarten belonged in the home, led by the family. But he urged them to consider children from families that are poor or where children face steep barriers to learning that are not their fault.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he said. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

It didn’t work: the bill was defeated in committee and presumed dead.

But Pence’s lobbying ultimately helped revive and pass the bill, getting Indiana off the list of just 10 U.S. states that spent no direct state funds to help poor children attend preschool.

Pence, who was 53 when he was elected governor in 2012, did not have a long record on education when he sought to lead Indiana. The Columbus, Ind., native had been an attorney and conservative radio talk show host before he was elected to five terms in Congress beginning in 2002. As a Congressman, he focused primarily on foreign affairs, the federal budget and social issues.

On education, he was perhaps best known for casting one of just 25 Republican votes against then-President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind education law in 2001, raising concerns about federal intrusion into local education decisions.

As governor, however, education has been a primary focus for Pence.

His main push has been to improve career and technical education programs. But he’s also been a strong advocate for state support for preschool, school choice, locally created academic standards and school accountability.

His election coincided with the shocking upset of then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who shared many of Pence’s education views, by Glenda Ritz, a teacher and school librarian with a very different approach to education policy.

Pence and Ritz were soon at odds, and the tug-of-war for control of the future direction of education in Indiana continues.

A push to improve career and technical education

Early on in his campaign, Pence argued that Indiana has focused too much on trying to prepare all children for college and had let slip programs that prepared high school graduates to go directly to work in good paying jobs that did not necessarily require college.

In the first legislative session after he was elected, Pence successfully pushed through two bills creating regional works councils and a state career council.

The regional councils are composed of educators, business leaders and others. The goal is to help schools in the region better understand the skills students need for jobs at nearby companies and to foster relationships that could lead to internships for students and improve courses in technical fields.

The state council’s goal is to unify job creation and education efforts in hopes each can learn from the other.

Pence said he hopes the councils and other efforts would lead to more students taking more courses that prepare them for jobs and that more graduates will leave school with industry certifications that qualify them to work or enter further training.

There’s some evidence the focus on career and technical programs is paying off.

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported participation in such programs rose by nearly 2,000 students statewide from Pence’s first year in office to his second year, and state data showed nearly all students who took the courses went on to further training, college or directly to jobs.

Preschool becomes a priority

In Pence’s first year in office, a bill to create a pilot program to offer tuition aid for poor children to attend preschool went nowhere and was not part of his agenda.

But that summer, Pence began visiting preschools and learning more about their difficulties attracting the poorest families to enroll their children. By 2014, Pence strongly endorsed a pilot program similar to the 2013 proposal. The final version that he signed into law picked five counties, launched in early 2015 and eventually will pay preschool tuition for about 1,500 poor children. It includes a study of whether the programs help students academically and parent satisfaction.

But getting the bill passed was difficult road. The Indiana Senate Education Committee defeated it in a committee vote, and it appeared dead. But negotiations between Pence and leaders of the House and Senate resurrected the program with funding redirected from other state departments.

Despite building a reputation as a preschool champion, Pence angered proponents for early education later that year when he instructed state officials not to send in an application for a federal education grant they were working on that might have garnered the state as much as $80 million for preschool.

After withering criticism, Pence said the grant would have required changes to the preschool pilot program that had not even begun, and he feared federal requirements could interfere with state efforts to manage its preschool efforts.

Championing school choice

Each year since his election, Pence has spoken at an annual school choice rally at the statehouse, affirming his strong support for publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition for low- and middle-income families and for charter schools, which are publicly funded but managed independently from school districts.

“Children in this state ought to be afforded opportunities for quality education,” Pence said at the 2015 rally. “Those decisions should be made in the best interests of our kids, and those decisions should be made by parents.”

Pence has pushed to expand both charter schools and vouchers, with some big legislative wins in 2015.

But Pence didn’t get everything he wanted. He proposed a $1,500 per-student grant to provide extra aid for charter schools for expenses beyond the classroom. Instead, lawmakers approved a $10 million grant fund for up to $500 per student for schools with good test scores or ones that can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools. But that still constituted the first significant extra bump in aid for charter schools after years of lobbying by advocates.

But in perhaps an even bigger boost, charter schools also were given access to a $50 million state fund from which they can seek loans for school construction or to buy computers and technology.

For vouchers, Pence persuaded lawmakers to lift a $4,800 cap on the amount of tuition aid families can receive. Previously, elementary schools were limited at that figure, but high schools were limited only by the amount of per-student state aid paid to the school districts where they live to cover the cost of their educations.

Standards, testing and Common Core

Much like his long-running support of school choice, Pence also pushed forward on another of his career-long concerns — that the federal government exercises too much control over American life — by changing the state’s plan for testing students.

Under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett, Indiana was an early adopter of shared Common Core standards that 45 other states ultimately adopted. The states also sought to share common tests, creating two consortia to develop them.

Indiana was originally part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and had planned to adopt PARCC tests in place of the state ISTEP exam in 2014-15. But in the summer of 2013, Pence announced Indiana would withdraw from PARCC and seek a different approach for testing.

That raised questions about whether Pence would support the state’s ongoing transition to Common Core standards. For months he said he was studying the question.

But in his 2014 State of the State address, Pence called for Indiana to develop its own standards and void its adoption of Common Core. Lawmakers then passed a bill to dump Common Core.

Pence found an unlikely ally in Ritz, who agreed that Indiana should make its own standards.

When state committees produced draft standards that spring, Common Core opponents rejected them as too similar. But with Pence and Ritz endorsing them, the new standards were approved in the spring of 2014.

That meant Indiana needed an overhauled state exam matched to the new standards — and fast. The standards went into effect for 2014-15, so the test needed to be ready by March of 2015.

Just before testing was to begin, an angry Pence called a press conference to criticize the much longer exam.

Pence and the state board blamed Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education. Eventually, they forged a compromise, and a bill to make changes to state law to allow the test to be shortened was fast-tracked for Pence’s signature.

The short tumultuous run of CECI

Tension with Ritz came soon after the end of the 2013 legislative session. The final state budget that year, approved by the legislature in April, gave Pence more latitude to manage state education funds, which allowed him in August to create the Center for Education and Career Innovation, or CECI.

The center, using money that had previously been managed by the education department under the state superintendent, hired separate staff for the Indiana State Board of Education. 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.

Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office, soon clashed with the state board, appointed entirely by Pence or his Republican predecessor Mitch Daniels. Board members used their new staff from the center to propose agenda items and policies that Ritz objected to. Sometimes she angered other board members by using her procedural power as chairwoman to block votes on some agenda items.

Ritz even sued the rest of the board in October of 2013, arguing the other board members violated state transparency laws when they sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking for their help to calculate school A-to-F grades without discussing it publicly. A judge tossed out the suit because Ritz filed it without Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s assistance.

In November of 2013, the political battle reached a new height when Ritz ended and walked out of a school board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion by board member Brad Oliver. She said she feared the motion would give CECI control over a process to revise A-to-F grading, which she believed fell under her purview.

In December of 2013, the board met with Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, seeking to end its conflicts. In its last meeting of the year, it made minor changes to its own rules, including the process for how items can be placed on the agenda.

A year later, Pence shocked many by announcing his plan to dissolve CECI, citing Ritz’s complaints about it and a desire to reduce tension.

A head-to-head battle with Ritz fizzles
The dissolution of CECI, however, was only one-half of the bargain Pence offered. He also called for a bill to remove the guarantee in state law that Ritz chair the state board, allowing board members to instead elect their own leader.

Ritz again characterized the move as a power grab in emotional testimony to the House Education Committee. But ultimately, Ritz won a reprieve.

The final bill did give the state board the right to pick its own leader — but not until after Ritz’s term ended in 2017. The bill diminished Pence’s power to appoint the state board, giving two of the 10 appointments to legislative leaders — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long.

The bill also required all new nominations for the state board, which led to five new board members among the 11 seats.

But that victory for Ritz was tempered by other changes the legislature made, giving the state board more control over A-to-F grades for schools, state testing, rules for private school tuition vouchers and charter school grants.

Those changes made Ritz angry and said it forced her to consider a run against Pence. After a month of weighing the possibilities, Ritz announced she, indeed, would be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. But the campaign lasted only 10 weeks. Instead, she is seeking re-election in 2016.

Pence was expected to face a rematch of his close 2012 election by again facing off with Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker in 2016. But he instead joined the national Republican ticket as Donald Trump’s choice for vice president.

-Updated October 2016