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.”