News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 29, 2013

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Education board snubs new chief Ritz

INDIANAPOLIS — Back in June, when Republican Gov. Mike Pence appointed four new members to the policy-making State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, issued a statement saying she looked forward to working with the new board on such “critical issues” as improving school and teacher accountability, increasing literacy and strengthening academic standards for Hoosier children.

But the board may not be that interested in working with her.

At its July meeting, the board voted to move ahead with hiring its own executive director, and potentially additional staff, to do the kind of strategic planning and research that was once done by the Department of Education when it was run by Republican Tony Bennett.  

The budget approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in April sets aside more than $6 million for the next two years for the State Board of Education (though not all for personnel), and the board intends to exert more control over those dollars, now that Ritz is in office.

As one of the board members said, in voting to go ahead with hiring its own staff, what the board does is not always “consistent” with the Ritz’s DOE. The board’s new staff will be working through the governor’s office, the board decided, so it isn’t answerable to Ritz.

The rift between the new superintendent and the board has been apparent since Ritz took office, after beating Bennett last November on a decidedly anti-education-reform platform. She capitalized on a backlash against Bennett, who’d become the face of the education overhaul championed by Pence’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.

When Bennett was in office, the state board — all gubernatorial appointees in line with Daniels’ education agenda — relied on Bennett and the DOE staff to make the case for education reform. Now, the board has to deal with a superintendent and a DOE staff making the case against it.

At that same July meeting in which the board decided to hire its own staff, the board made it clear it was unhappy with Ritz. Members scolded her for making major changes on her own to the new teacher evaluation model approved by the state board, which relies heavily on student progress on the ISTEP standardized tests. And they stopped her in her tracks when she proposed revising another one of their rules, the one that says third-grade students who flunk the IREAD-3 reading test can’t move on to fourth grade without remediation.

The state board did go along with her suggestion to stall implementation of a new education law, House Enrolled Act 1005. It requires high schools to start testing students in the 11th grade to gauge their readiness for taking college-level math and English, and to provide remediation for those who aren’t.

Ritz said the DOE needs until April to come up with a plan to implement the law; the state board went along. But the issue is likely to come up again much sooner than that, with the state board devising its own plan for how to implement the law.

Add into this divide Pence’s new appointment, Claire Fiddian-Green, as his “special assistant for education innovation and reform.” As the former director of the Indiana Charter School Board, she’s an advocate of school choice, as are Pence and the State Board of Education — and as Ritz is not.  Who knows what this all means for Hoosier school children? One thing seems sure: The politics of education rolls on.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse Bureau for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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