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Legislature shifts more Ritz powers to state board than expected

Gov. Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 1 today, changing the way members of the Indiana State Board, and its chair, are selected.
Gov. Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 1 today, changing the way members of the Indiana State Board, and its chair, are selected.
Scott Elliott

A series of last-minute moves by the Indiana legislature ultimately stripped more power from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz than expected in the last hours of the 2015 session.

Changes in Senate Bill 1 earlier this week looked like a partial victory for Ritz, but things quickly changed.

The version of the bill that passed today does allow her to remain chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education until after the 2016 election — an outcome she pushed hard for. But if she is re-elected next year, the guarantee in state law that she will chair the board will be gone in 2017 as the board will get to choose its own leader by a vote.

New provisions were added to Senate Bill 1 and tucked into the state budget bill, however, that expanded state board control over A-to-F grades for schools, ISTEP testing and charter school grants.

“This is all being done at the last minute,” said Daniel Altman, Ritz’s spokesman. “It’s all being done without any input from us and, to my knowledge, any public input. It’s just another power grab.”

The bill also could result in a complete overhaul of the state board by June 1. It changes the way the board is selected so Gov. Mike Pence will appoint eight new members by that date. For the first time, the House speaker and Senate president will each appoint one member. So by June, some of the 11 board members could be reappointed, or they could all be replaced except Ritz.

The bill passed the House 60 to 38 and the Senate 31 to 17. It heads next to Pence for his signature, which is all but certain.

Pence made a it a top priority this year to change state law so the state board could pick someone other than Ritz as chair if it wanted. He didn’t get that, but he hailed the other moves as progress.

“I know there has been great controversy around this issues and around the state board over the last two years,” Pence said. “The goal here is that we would bring about a range of reforms in the state board of education that would make it more possible for those various initiatives to operate with more efficiency and more effectiveness for our kids.”

Ritz and Pence were both elected in 2012. Pence’s ascension to governor was widely expected, but Ritz’s win over her predecessor, Tony Bennett, shocked many observers. Six months into their terms, Pence made a series of appointments to the state board, followed soon after by an executive order that allowed the board to hire more staff.

Since then, state board meetings have become a contentious tug-of-war as Ritz, at times, used her limited powers as chairwoman to try to push discussion of her favored agenda items and slow or block some proposals in ways that angered other board members.
Ritz has argued that Pence has used the board and its larger staff to undermine her authority and circumvent the will of the voters who elected her. The board eventually rewrote its own rules to limit Ritz’s control over the meeting agendas and her ability to deny motions.

Language from the budget bill goes further, creating new law that requires that the board’s vice chair agree to the agenda. Ritz currently sets the agenda, after which other board members can suggest changes.

“They’re leaving her as chair, but she is going to be chair in name only if she doesn’t even have the ability to say what goes on the agenda in the meeting,” Altman said.

The legislature did not stop there.

Senate Bill 1 designates the state board as a “state education authority,” clearing the way for it to more easily receive student data under federal privacy laws, and it requires the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education to hand over any data the board says it needs.

The state board will have explicit control over the process of assigning A-to-F grades, as new state laws will spell out the board’s right to choose an outside organization to recalculate the grades and revise grades if it wishes. The past two years Ritz agreed to the board’s request to have the Legislative Services Agency check the education department’s work on school grades.

For testing, Pence and the state board have been critical of the way Ritz and the department have managed an overhaul of ISTEP and the bidding process for the creation of a new ISTEP.

Going forward, the board will have more say in those processes. The budget gives board members new authority to establish the criteria for requesting proposals from companies to create tests and for the teams that evaluate them. The state board also will have a direct say in the content and format of future ISTEP exams and for setting the passing scores.

The Education Roundtable, which previously set passing scores, was dissolved by the legislature this year. The other functions had been managed by the education department.

Finally, a new grant program designed to help charter schools with outside-of-the-classroom costs also will be overseen by the state board instead of the department.

“She would have no authority,” Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, said of Ritz’s role after the changes. “This is far broader than has been revealed or discussed. This is a dramatic change in policy.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Greendale, argued that Republicans compromised by allowing Ritz to stay the chairwoman for the rest of her term and said the bill was needed for the board to function effectively.

“There is a problem and it does need to be fixed now,” he said. “We’re allowing that to happen. We are still creating a mechanism to allow more cooperation between the state superintendent and the State Board of Education.”

Democrats rejected the suggestion that the bill offered compromise.

“I realize the shock of Superintendent Ritz’s election was hard to take,” said Rep Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “After the shock passed, I understand it settled into inconvenience. But elections are often inconvenient things.”

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