Commentary: Political fog, education smoke

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – Like so many other pitched conflicts, Indiana’s education wars have created a great deal of fog and dust.

That’s made it hard for Hoosiers to see what’s really going on.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

The unseemly battles between former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and the members of the state Board of Education, all of whom had been appointed by Republican former governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence primarily to thwart Ritz, were as mesmerizing as a demolition derby. With all that bumping, banging and crashing going on, it was easy to lose track of the direction things were going.

Nowhere.

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress – NAEP – test results were released in late 2015, Pence and other self-proclaimed education reformers shouted with joy that Hoosier students had made huge gains because Indiana had jumped several places in the state-by-state rankings.

It turned out, though, that Indiana students hadn’t really made gains. The test scores indicated that they had performed about the same as they had in 2013, the last time the test was given. In some areas, they hadn’t performed as well as they did two years earlier.

But many states – most of them ones in which the education reformers held the most sway – had lost even more ground.

So, by standing still or fading only slightly, Indiana did comparatively better than states that were falling farther and farther behind.

Evidence such as that might have given rational minds reason to pause and reflect.

But rationality fled the education debate in Indiana – and elsewhere – a long time ago.

That’s why the top education priority for Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and the GOP leaders in the Indiana House and Senate has been to make the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed, rather than an elected, position.

They are so focused on making this happen they have been willing to run roughshod over legislative rules and practices – and defy Indiana history.

Hoosiers long have distrusted concentrated power in the executive branch. That’s why our constitution provides Indiana’s governor with one of the weakest vetoes in the nation.

It’s also why almost every position in the executive branch above the level of janitor is an elected one.

Hoosiers historically have not wanted to place too much power in the hands of any one person.

That’s about to change.

It appears likely that a bill making the superintendent a gubernatorial appointee will emerge from the General Assembly and land on Holcomb’s desk, where he will sign it.

In doing so, he will make the governor’s office much, much more powerful.

Funding primary and secondary education in Indiana represents a little more than half of the state’s budget.

And the governor will be able to control it all.

This is where the fog and dust come into play.

Education reformers argue we can improve educational performance by making authority in schools less concentrated so parents are empowered to make choices and take responsibility for their children’s educations.

It’s hard to argue, though, that taking the choice of who will be the state’s education chief out of those parents’ hands and placing it in the governor’s “empowers” them – or makes authority over schools less concentrated.

The governor and legislative leaders also like to say they make education reform a priority because they care about kids and families.

For most Hoosier voters, making the superintendent’s position appointed rather than elected ranks somewhere around zero. Hoosiers care about pre-K opportunities, about education paths that might arrest the rapid disintegration of the middle class and, most of all, about making sure their children are safe and learning when they step into the classroom.

It’s hard to see how this move addresses any of those concerns.

But, then, this battle never really was about children or parents.

If it were about children and parents, the fact that most of the education reform measures haven’t moved the dial when it comes to student performance would be prodding us back to the drawing board.

No, the numbers tell the story.

More than half the state’s budget soon will be more securely directed by the governor.

This is about money.

It’s about control.

And, most of all, it is and always has been about power.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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