Monday, October 14, 2013

Questioning Ritz's role

Posted By on Mon, Oct 14, 2013 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge lesley_stedman_weidenbener_-_mug_-_the_statehouse_file.jpg
It's time Hoosier lawmakers have a serious talk about whether Indiana should eliminate its elected superintendent of public instruction because the political and public policy situation developing now is almost untenable.

Voters elected Glenda Ritz to be state superintendent last fall, making her the first Democrat to hold the office since 1971.

And Republicans have been working since to undermine her authority.

As superintendent, Ritz is chairman of the State Board of Education, whose other members are all appointed by the governor. That means they've all been chosen by either former Gov. Mitch Daniels or current Gov. Mike Pence, both Republicans.

Traditionally, the state Department of Education - overseen by Ritz - has staffed and funded the board's work. It's a relatively unusual setup. Only a handful of other states do anything similar. But for years - under Democratic and Republican governors - state officials have worked through their differences and managed to oversee schools through compromises and shared vision.

Not so much anymore.

There's been nothing but tension since Ritz surprised everyone by unseating Republican Tony Bennett, who had been spearheading GOP education reforms that included creation of a broad school voucher program, stripped down collective bargaining rights for teachers and new accountability systems for schools and educators.

Right after voters rejected Bennett and gave Ritz the job, Republicans who lead all other areas of state government said essentially that the superintendent's job is largely administrative and that the election wouldn't stop their reform efforts. And they've been working to ensure that's true.

The General Assembly included a provision in the state budget this year that allows the education board to move its budget outside the DOE and hire its own staff.

Then Pence created a new education agency - Center for Education and Career Innovation - that pulls together a number of new and existing boards that are doing workforce development and education policy work. The agency reports directly to Pence.

It's also staffing the Board of Education, which recently voted to hire consultants to create its own strategic plan. Last week, a subcommittee of the board picked the company it wants to work with.

That move came a week or so after a testy education board meeting in which board member Dan Elsener tried unsuccessfully to alter the agenda, which Ritz sets.

Last week, Elsener said there's nothing unusual about a board creating a strategic plan. That's true enough.

But this isn't just any board. It's a board that takes its direction from the General Assembly, which sets education policy. And it's a board that directs an agency led by an elected official - a person that voters have directly chosen to be their voice for Indiana schools.

It's a difficult situation under the best of circumstances. But for years, elected officials have managed to make it work.

That no longer appears to be the case, which brings policy makers back to the question about whether it's time to reconsider the elected superintendent. Over the years, Republicans and Democrats have at separate times - largely based on political situations - suggested that the office be eliminated. But such talk never gathered any steam.

It's time that lawmakers have the debate. They should do it with the goal of choosing a system that's best for schools and for Indiana taxpayers - absent discussion of what's best for political parties or individual office holders.

That might mean keeping the elected superintendent. It might mean giving the governor authority to oversee the education department. But the decision should be a public policy one, not a political one. And when it's been made, public officials should respect it.

Lesley Weidenbener is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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