News From Terre Haute, Indiana


July 12, 2014

EDITORIAL: Dysfunctional relationship with schools chief doesn’t bode well for potential Pence presidency

TERRE HAUTE — A window to the future may be unfolding in Indiana.

By making appearances around the country and abroad, and speeches on foreign policy and topics only peripherally related to Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence seems to be seriously exploring a run for president in 2016. One festering situation in the Hoosier state makes a potential Pence presidency a troubling prospect.

The absurdly dysfunctional relationship between the state Board of Education members and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz mirrors that of Congress. The public approval rating for Congress hit a record low this month, with just 7 percent of Americans expressing solid confidence in their federal lawmakers. Why? Congress’ extreme factions adamantly refuse to work with political rivals and, thus, are on course to become the least productive Congress in American history, and all but the most politically strident people are weary of their ideological gamesmanship.

Pence and his fellow Republicans in Hoosier state government have few opponents with which to contend. They’ve won the past three governor races and hold super-majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. And the only Democrat elected to statewide office, Ritz, was a long-time Republican until the former teacher decided in 2012 to challenge Tony Bennett, a then-star of the GOP’s education reform movement.

That’s it. That’s the extent of their opposition.

Yet, from the night of her election victory Nov. 6, 2012, through last week, Ritz has seen her basic authority to perform her job disregarded, challenged and circumvented by the Board of Education members (all appointed by Pence and his predecessor, Mitch Daniels), the Republican-dominated Legislature and the governor’s team. Their tactics include Pence’s creation of a separate education agency — the Center for Education and Career Innovation, in conflict with the Department of Education, which Ritz oversees; legislative threats to make the superintendent an appointed position; and persistent efforts by Board of Education members to override her.

The latter situation has deteriorated into a soap opera of dysfunction — an embarrassment to the state. Last week, Board of Education members voted to strip more of Ritz’s powers, assuming greater control over meetings and policy oversight. They rationalized their actions as a concern that Ritz mishandled a federally required resubmission of the state’s waiver to the No Child Left Behind law, with $200 million in Title I funding at stake, and kept them out of the loop about it. More likely, it was a 28-page critique by Pence’s CECI agency of Ritz’s resubmitted waiver sent by CECI to the U.S. Department of Education, as reported by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, that left federal officials wondering what’s going on in Indiana.

Why does this power-play against Ritz continue? Maybe it’s sheer intolerance. Maybe party allies still nurse wounds over voters’ utter rejection of Bennett in favor of Ritz, a woman in Indianapolis’ otherwise male-dominated governmental power structure. Maybe it’s because she received more votes in her race — 1.3 million — than Pence did in his narrow 2012 gubernatorial win over Democrat John Gregg. Whatever the cause, the maneuvering has spawned a dysfunctional working relationship within Indiana’s education system.

The governor is in a position to repair and improve it. The long-overdue first step in that process would be to recognize the full authority of the office voters elected Ritz to fulfill. Instead, Pence, thus far, seems at peace with the dysfunction and turmoil conjured by the political ploys. He would bolster his image as a leader (and presidential candidate) by reversing course, extending genuine respect toward Ritz and demanding the same for her from his appointees and administration.

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