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Indiana State Board member Brad Oliver, shown at a board meeting in May, testified for a bill that would shift authority away from the Indiana Department of Education

Indiana State Board member Brad Oliver, shown at a board meeting in May, testified for a bill that would shift authority away from the Indiana Department of Education

Scott Elliott

Lawmakers consider shifting Ritz’s power to state board

The Indiana State Board of Education would get specific authority over testing, standards, student data, state takeover, teacher evaluation and other functions that today are primarily managed by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz under a bill Indiana lawmakers considered today.

That brought sharp words from Ritz’s fellow Democrats on the House Education Committee.

“What you are doing is making the superintendent a clerical assistant,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “You make her do the work and the decision are made by the state board.”

But state board member Brad Oliver, who spoke in favor of House Bill 1486, said the bill was needed to clarify the roles of the state board, the education department and the superintendent.

“I often hear there is a power grab,” he said. “If you look closely, there is nothing here to expand beyond the scope of what the state board of education does.”

The bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, covers a long list of state education policy functions. Among the changes it would make:

  • Records of the state board would be kept by the board, not the education department.
  • Oversight of failing schools being managed by contractors after state takeover shift from the department to the state board.
  • The board can appoint an executive director and staff separate from the department.
  • The board, not the department, would be named the state’s education agency, a shift with implications for who manages interactions with the U.S. Department of Education, such as Indiana’s No Child Left Behind waiver.
  • A requirement that the department share any data the board requests to evaluate or audit state education programs.
  • Any model teacher evaluation system devised by the department must receive board approval.
  • Gives the board, not the department, the power to choose what academic standards are set in what subjects and when.
  • Confers authority on the state board to consult with the Legislative Service Agency to validate A-to-F grades.
  • Puts the state board in charge of the process of designing state tests and requires schools give the third grade reading exam, IREAD.

Committee chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the recommendations came from the “bipartisan” state board.

“People on both sides of the political spectrum asked the General Assembly to look at this,”  he said.

While the state board includes Democrats and Republicans, all were appointed by Republican governors, and only Ritz is strongly aligned with traditional Democratic views on education.

Ritz’s supporters blasted the plan as an attack on her.

“I don’t know how anyone could read this bill as anything other than a transfer of authority,” said John O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Ritz’s own lobbyist, John Barnes, echoed that theme and urged the committee to instead put questions of authority over education policy to a committee to study and allow for wider public input.

“”We see this as an irresponsible power grab,” Barnes said. “The Department of Education is the state education agency. This is going to muddy the waters.”

House Bill 1486 is something of a companion bill to House Bill 1609, which is more direct in stripping Ritz of her legal guarantee that the superintendent will chair the state board, instead putting the leadership of the board up for a vote by its members. That will be heard in the House Education Committee on Thursday.

Both bills have connections to a surprising announcement last month from Gov. Mike Pence, who pitched himself as extending an olive branch to Ritz by promising to close down the Center for Education and Career Innovation. Since Pence launched the center in 2013, Ritz has repeatedly criticized it for usurping her authority.

In announcing his legislative agenda, Pence said he was shutting CECI down but asked Ritz to also give something up: her chairwomanship of the state board.

But at today’s hearing, Sally Sloan of the Indiana Federation of Teachers argued Pence was having it both ways. While House Bill 1609 would remove Ritz as chair, she said House Bill 1486 allowed the state board to restore much of the CECI staff under a new executive director.

Sloan said she believes many CECI staff members will not only stay on, but they might even continue to occupy the same offices across the street from the Statehouse.

“It’s a charade,” she said of Pence’s pledge to shut CECI down.

Discussion of House Bill 1486 is expected to continue at Thursday’s committee meeting.