As the governor takes more control of education, Indiana could break down government ‘silos’

Indiana lawmakers are considering consolidating the State Board of Education with two other largely governor-appointed agencies, a move that may become easier when the state changes to a governor-appointed schools superintendent in 2021.

On Tuesday, an interim committee of lawmakers discussed potentially consolidating the state board of education, governor’s workforce cabinet, and Commission for Higher Education.

The discussion seems to signal an expectation of smoother relationships between the governor’s office and superintendent, who heads the education department and sits on the state board.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, suggested the state turn each into smaller subcommittees, which would make recommendations to an overarching “Commission for Lifelong Learning.” The commission, which would include the state superintendent, would take authority over state policy from the state board.

Currently, the three groups function separately from each other and the department of education. The governor’s workforce cabinet was established last year to review career and technical education and oversee new grant programs. The 14-member higher education commission, created in 1971, administers state financial aid, collects secondary education data and reviews colleges’ appropriation requests.

The state board, which has existed since 1852, authorizes billions of dollars in state education funds to local K-12 schools, assigns school letter grades, and intervenes into failing schools, among other things. Most of its members — eight of the 11 — are appointed by the governor.

Although the Behning’s proposal wouldn’t truly combine the groups because they would remain in subcommittees, Behning said the additional commission would help ensure that all groups are working in alignment.

“We need to do something to change the government so we have a total focus instead of these silos,” he told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Historically, the state superintendent has been an elected position. The decision to move to an appointed superintendent is controversial because it puts the power in the governor’s hands.

A year ago, Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said she experienced “toxic politics” between the education department and governor’s office. Her comments were surprising to some, who expected the Republican to find better success in a state where the governor is a Republican and the legislature has a Republican supermajority.

Behning’s idea is a far cry from Democrat Rep. Ed DeLaney’s bill earlier this year that would have scrapped the state board of education and transferred its responsibilities to the state education department. Instead, his model is similar to the former Indiana Education Roundtable, which was co-chaired by the governor and state superintendent. The roundtable was dissolved in 2015 under then-Gov. Mike Pence, who frequently clashed with then-superintendent and Democrat Glenda Ritz.

The interim committee of lawmakers didn’t make any decisions on Tuesday for how to move forward. Representatives from each of the three groups involved said they didn’t have enough time to prepare a response to the suggestion.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest union, said during the meeting Tuesday that they would support a model similar to the roundtable, but asked for some members to be elected to balance the appointed state superintendent.

“It had a model that worked well and brought together a diverse host of interest,” said ISTA lobbyist John O’Neal. “Recreating this is doable.”