By Erika Brock
INDIANAPOLIS – Republican lawmakers pulled back slightly Wednesday from a last minute effort to shift more authority away from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz even as they let her remain the chair of the State Board of Education through the end of her current term.
With the support of Gov. Mike Pence, fiscal leaders put language in the state budget late Tuesday that would have shifted oversight of Indiana’s private school voucher program to the State Board of Education.
The governor – emerging from a meeting Wednesday in House Speaker Brian Bosma’s office – said he supported the move. But a few hours later, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said that language had been stripped from the bill.
“The Senate didn’t know it was there,” Long told reporters.
Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said Pence “got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”
The revised budget – which lawmakers planned to approve by a midnight deadline – still gives the State Board of Education more authority to oversee Indiana’s ISTEP testing program and lets the board control a new grant program that gives more money to charter schools, which are public schools freed from traditional rules and districts.
It also boosts funding for the education board.
“I think that 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,” Pence said.
Legislators also approved Senate Bill 1, which will allow Ritz to keep her position as chair of the state board until December 31, 2016. After that, the board would elect it’s own chair. The bill passed the House 60-38 and the Senate 31-17.
Earlier this session, the House and Senate had passed bills to remove her from the job immediately. The new provision won’t take effect until after the next election.
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said Ritz deserves to keep her spot as chair of the board because she represents the will of the people.
“I get so many emails, so many text messages, so many calls indicating they are supporting her even though they are of the Republican persuasion,” Smith said. “They claim themselves to be Republican but still they are supporting what she is about.”
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said the legislation is a compromise.
“We create a mechanism that requires more cooperation” between the state board and superintendent, he said. “We make sure our children are best served.”
Under SB 1, the superintendent will remain in charge of the Department of Education, which implements policies approved by the board.
Still, Altman said the legislation is “still taking away the voice of the voters.”
“When some votes for governor, they do it for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When someone votes for superintendent, they’re voting on education issues. This takes away their voice on the State Board of Education.”
Since Ritz was elected more than two years ago – defeating Republican Tony Bennett – she and board members have bickered about not just significant policies involving testing and school accountability but also small, administrative issues including who gets to put items on the board agenda and when a policy is eligible for a vote. At one point, Ritz sued the board for taking action behind her back and, at another point, she walked out of a meeting.
“I realize the shock of Superintendent Ritz’s election was hard to take,” said Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “But this bill does not have to be. It doesn’t have to be because it still suffers the taint that has existed through the legislative session. It is an effort to reverse the will of the people.”
And Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, said the divisions between the superintendent and the board represent deep philosophical differences that should be debated.
But Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, said dysfunction does exist – and he blamed both sides.
“The actions I’ve witnessed don’t demonstrate how adults should work together,” said Cook, a former school superintendent.
He called the bill “an excellent attempt” to deal with the needs of the state’s education leadership structure.
SB 1 shakes up the board membership, although not as significantly as previous versions. The board would retain 11 members – with the superintendent serving as one.
Eight members would be appointed by the governor – as opposed to 10 now – and six of those must have professional experience in education. The governor could appoint no more than five from any one political party.
The leaders of the House and Senate would each get one appointment to the board.
The changes in the board composition would begin June 1.
“I’m just grateful that we are rolling our sleeves up,” Pence said. “We’re finding some ways to improve the functioning, provide the resources necessary for the state board of education to provide that role of oversight of education policy in the state of Indiana that it’s designed to do. “
Alec Gray and Lesley Weidenbener contributed to this report. Erika Brock is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.