Mike Pence’s First Step on Systemic Reform Late last month, Dropout Nation noted in its States to Watch compendium that one could expect reformers in Indiana to work hard to weaken newly-elected Supt. Glenda Ritz’s efforts to roll back the reforms initiated by predecessor Tony Bennett. This has already begun to happen on Gov. Mike Pence’s first day in office. Through an executive order, Pence took back control of the Hoosier State’s Educational Employment Relations Board, which referees battles between districts and National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates. Four years earlier, Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels, placed the agency under control of the state education department soon after Bennett had taken office.
Certainly this is the first salvo at what will likely be an effort by reformers to place state education oversight fully under gubernatorial control, something that reformers on both sides have long-supported even before Ritz defeated the now-Florida education commissioner’s re-election bid this past November. Governors should be in charge of education governance, and ending the election of Indiana’s chief state schools officer just makes sense. Whether or not the step taken by Pence to remove control of the labor dispute board from Ritz’ oversight good way to start that effort is a different matter entirely. As Dropout Nation has always argued, state education departments should have full oversight of all aspects of education policy — and this includes overseeing how districts and teachers’ unions address their labor discussions. Regardless of one’s view of Ritz and her traditionalist thinking, it simply makes no sense to remove the superintendent from governing contract negotiations at the district level.
Just as importantly, by issuing the executive order so quickly, Pence has also made it easier for traditionalists to push back against any effort to consolidate education governance under gubernatorial control. This especially matters in a state such as Indiana, where any reform can be challenged because it appears to be motivated by “outsiders”. Ritz could easily also play philosophical conservatives in the state, whose displeasure with what they considered to be efforts by Bennett to weaken the local control they prize (regardless of the reality that districts are merely arms of state government) helped contribute to his defeat.
Pence should have held his fire. Instead, he should put together a package to the legislature — rolled up in a proposed biennial budget — that would have essentially moved state education department functions under a new agency that would be controlled by a gubernatorial appointee. Such a move, reminiscent of how Daniels implemented a number of his government reforms during his first term in office, would have been relatively easy to pass given the super-majority his Republican allies have in both houses of the legislature.
Will Indianapolis Sack Its Superintendent? Away from Indiana’s imposing statehouse at the Indianapolis Public Schools’ headquarters, the new reform-minded majority on its board is engaging in what it calls strategic planning to address the district’s questionable status as an educational going concern. None of this is happening with the help of Eugene White, the superintendent who has managed during his eight-year tenure to do very little to rid IPS of its status as the worst-performing school system in the Midwest outside of Detroit. As Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star has reported, the district’s board has already held at least one meeting behind closed doors without White’s presence. There will likely be even more meetings without White. Why? Because more than likely, IPS’ board is likely considering how it can find the $675,000 in salary (along with other costly payouts) needed to show White the door.
None of this is shocking. As Dropout Nation noted last November, the successful effort by reformers to elect three new members to the IPS board was pretty much the sign to White that he had overstayed his welcome. But it isn’t the only one. The effort launched last year by former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s Mind Trust to put the district under mayoral control, the move by Peterson’s successor, Greg Ballard, to hire a former Teach for America alum to a new job coordinating with IPS and other districts in the city, and the fact that the Circle City’s notorious clique of black politicians are no longer rushing to White’s defense, has also made clear that White’s days as IPS chief were numbered.
It shouldn’t have taken so long. Ever White took the job during the 2005-2006 school year, he has presided over a series of district reorganizations and administrative reshufflings that have resulted in little improvement in student achievement. Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 47 percent between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 36 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. In fact, IPS graduated 205 fewer graduates in 2009-2010 than it did five years earlier; that’s greater than the 90-student decline in eighth-grade enrollment that happened over that same period. Between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011, the percentage of all students passing the Hoosier State’s battery of standardized tests barely increased, from 40 percent to 45 percent; the percentage of fourth-graders passing the state’s reading test increased by just two points (from 61 percent to 63 percent) over that period.
Meanwhile White has proven that he may be less-qualified to run IPS than the coat-check person at the local Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. In October 2011, White proclaimed IPS was failing because unlike Indianapolis’ charter schools, the 33,079-student district had to take kids who were “blind, crippled, crazy”. [White later apologized for the statement.] He has also become renowned for nepotism as well as for keeping around (and promoting) school leaders who shouldn’t be working for the district either; Jacqueline Greenwood, for example, was allowed by White to hold on to her job as principal of Arlington High School despite graduation rates that hovered around the 60-percent range; he eventually kicked her upstairs to a cushy central bureaucrat job overseeing IPS’ high schools.
Whether or not White will be sacked by February, or allowed to resign at the end of the school year, is an open question. But White will no longer hold the top job once school begins this coming August.
Editor’s Note: The original piece included a report on rulemaking for the federal I3 program. It has been moved here.