Strong majorities of both houses of the Indiana legislature are signaling they want to clear the way for someone other than state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to lead the Indiana State Board of Education.
Senate Bill 1 passed the Senate 33-17 today. The Indiana House passed a similar bill this past week, House Bill 1609, 58-40. There were no Democrats in either house who voted for either bill. Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office. In the Senate, seven Republicans voted against Senate Bill 1, while 12 Republicans voted against House Bill 16o9 earlier this month.
Republicans were undaunted by a rally against the bills in the Statehouse on Monday, which was energized when Ritz made a surprise appearance to wild cheers by hundreds who attended.
Even so, Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the bill should not be seen as a personal attack on Ritz but as a reaction to years of board dysfunction.
“If the board doesn’t work, K through 12 education doesn’t work,” Long said.
The bills have different specifics, but both would let the state board elect its own leader from among its members. It’s all but certain that the board, entirely appointed by Republican governors, would chose someone other than Ritz.
Republican supporters of the bill argued that leading the board is just a small part of Ritz’s job as superintendent. She still retains control over her own budget and supervises the education department staff to carry out policy, Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, said.
“We’ve not removed the superintendent, we’ve allowed the board to elect its own chair like all boards do,” Hershman said. “We are exercising our responsibility as the legislative branch of a three-branch system.”
But critics, including Democratic leader Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said it’s dangerous to begin chipping away at the power of elected leaders. Even if voters didn’t realize Ritz would be state board chairwoman when they voted for her, he said, they sure know it now.
“I’ve heard it said, ‘Well, it’s just a little piece of that person’s power,'” Lanane said. “Well it doesn’t matter. We are still changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Pence said Senate Bill 1 is a necessary corollary to his move to shut down the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an education agency Ritz frequently blamed as interfering with her work. It is closing down this month after his executive order late last year.
“The superintendent said her problem was with that office,” Pence said. “I took that to heart. At the end of the day, it became a source of friction.”
Additionally, Senate Bill 1 would allow the state board to hire an executive director and staff, paid for by the state’s general fund. Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, who chairs the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, said next year’s proposed budget would give the board the same amount of money it has received in years past — $3.5 million per year, of which $2.3 million has typically been spent.
Board make-up in the Senate bill also shifts appointments away from Gov. Mike Pence. Currently, Pence has the power to appoint 10 of the 11 board members. Pence would get just four appointments of nine — two of which must have experience as educators — under the bill.
The House speaker and Senate president would each appoint two members, but one must have education experience and both cannot be from the same political party. The House speaker and Senate president would be expected to consult with Senate and House minority leaders on the appointments.
The goal of the bill, Republicans said, is to resolve tensions on the state board. Allowing the board to choose its own leader would improve the atmosphere at meetings and help avoid problems, such as those Pence said led to the creation of an ISTEP test that was twice as long as last year’s exam.
“There’s been lot of dysfunction on the State Board of Education for the last two years,” he said. “I think all the confusion that resulted in the doubling of the ISTEP test is a byproduct of all the dysfunction in the state board of education.”
But Lanane asked if this wasn’t just another political move to limit Ritz’s power.
“Somebody wants to take the superintendent of public instruction to the proverbial woodshed, for whatever reason,” Lanane said. “In my opinion, it’s a woodshed made of politics, by politics, for politics.”