Senate committee reviews bill to appoint state’s top education office in 2021

By Erica Irish
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — A former Indiana state superintendent of public instruction is urging lawmakers to require that appointed education chiefs have some firsthand experience in the K-12 school system.

The discussion started when Suellen Reed, who held the state’s top education office from 1993 until 2009, testified on a proposal to move up the first appointed state superintendent of public instruction by four years in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee Wednesday.

House Bill 1005, authored by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and sponsored by the state’s top Republican politicians — including Gov. Eric Holcomb — was one of the first measures to pass out of the House chamber in January, following a 70-29 vote.

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed speaks before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee at a hearing Wednesday. Reed criticized House Bill 1005’s lack of a concrete requirement that future superintendents of public instruction have firsthand experience in K-12 education. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

While Reed did not explicitly voice opposition to the new appointment rule, she did take issue with a provision in the bill that doesn’t require future state superintendents to have firsthand experience in education. In its current form, the bill only recommends qualities for an ideal candidate, such as someone who has served as an administrator or teacher.

“We all know that times change, and we have to change with those times, and that when there is change, we need to embrace it,” Reed said. “We want someone with proven skills, knowledge and experience, with ethics, with civility and with passion. It is up to you.”

As only one of nine states that choose state superintendents in partisan elections, and as one of 13 states that holds an election for the post in the first place, Bosma said shifting the office to an appointed role would be beneficial to the legislature and office candidates.

If HB 1005 is successful in the Senate, the first governor-appointed superintendent of public instruction would take office in 2021 at the start of the next gubernatorial term, rather than the original proposed start year of 2025.

The General Assembly first shifted the rules in 2017, when lawmakers enacted House Enrolled Act 1005 and effectively reversed the position’s election system that had determined that state’s top education office for 165 years.

Bosma said he and other leaders in the General Assembly decided it would be best to move up the appointment date after Jennifer McCormick, the current state superintendent of public instruction, abruptly announced in October she would not seek re-election in 2020.

“When Superintendent McCormick indicated that she was not going to run for another term, it seemed that, rather than bring someone in for a four-year term with no hope of re-election, it made a great deal of sense to move the date,” Bosma explained.

In the announcement, McCormick cited a critical divide between her and the state’s priorities for education development.

At the committee hearing Wednesday, Reed touched on this political divisiveness from her own experience.

“In some of the legislation it’s almost like they’re pitting the state board and the state superintendent against one another instead of working together for the good,” Reed said, referring to both HB 1005 and other measures put forth by lawmakers this session.

Reed warned lawmakers this separation might deepen by not requiring education chiefs have experience in the field they are charged to represent.

But Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said education officials do not need to have direct experience in the field, whether that’s teaching in the classroom or a higher degree, because education fundamentally affects every person in the country.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, testifies in favor of his proposal to move up the first appointment of the state’s superintendent from 2025 to 2021 at a Senate Education and Career Development Committee hearing Wednesday. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

“I, sitting on the Senate Education Committee, don’t profess to have an advanced degree in education,” Freeman said. “But I do have two kids in public schools, and I want the best for my kids.”

Freeman and Bosma each cited other examples of education leaders serving without concrete experience in the field, including Purdue University President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. 

Educators who’ve worked in a classroom firsthand, however, argued personal knowledge of the K-12 system is key to leading and unifying the state’s department of education. 

Vic Smith, a board member on the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said teachers won’t be fooled by a lack of inexperience in the state’s top education office. He also said the legislature’s inability to require a superintendent have K-12 experience is disrespectful to teachers.

“They know better,” said Smith said, drawing from his more than 40 years of experience in Indiana’s public-school system. “You have the opportunity to amend this bill to correct the damaging message it carries.”

In response, Bosma said the bill would send “just the opposite” message, noting his family ties to education. He referred to his daughter, who serves as a fourth-grade teacher, and 14 teachers between his and his wife’s immediate families, as motivating factors behind his work on the bill.

“This bill expresses no disrespect for teachers,” he said. “It expresses that we want the most professional, highest qualified individual to work with state government to coordinate our state public school system and private school system.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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