Anyone who has been paying attention to the education policy environment in Indiana since Glenda Ritz ousted then-incumbent Tony Bennett last year as the Hoosier State’s superintendent cannot be surprised by yesterday’s move by Ritz to storm out of a meeting with the reform-minded state board of education after one member, Brad Oliver, proposed to hand over the state-mandated review of Common Core reading and math standards — which was due this past July, but apparently never delivered by the state education department Ritz oversees — to an education policy agency that reports directly to Gov. Mike Pence. Or even shocked that Ritz moved in a fit of pique to cut off Web streaming of the meeting and shut down Internet access in the conference room where the board was meeting.
After all, Ritz is still sore over an Indiana state superior court judge tossing out her lawsuit against the board for supposedly violating the state’s open meeting law by signing off on a letter asking the state legislature’s Legislative Services Agency calculate the state’s A-to-F school grades. The move by the board came amid their frustration with Ritz’s continuous moves to effectively kibosh the accountability system, which she publicly opposed last year during her successful campaign for office, by delaying the calculations. Ritz likely hoped that controversy over the A-to-F grading system emerging from revelations that predecessor Bennett had altered grades for 13 schools that served children from kindergarten to 10th grade, a non-traditional format (and, ultimately, changed grades for 165 schools throughout the Hoosier State) would lead to the state ditching the accountability system. But this didn’t come to pass. Instead, a report by two independent consultants on behalf of the state legislature validated Bennett’s moves and suggested changes to A-to-F grading instead of eliminating it altogether. Certainly Ritz is right that A-to-F grading isn’t ready for prime time. But she should have made that argument to the legislature in January when they could consider a bill ditching the approach.
[Ritz did manage to weaken the viability of the system for the long term by getting a panel she convened to approve changes that would base grades on percentage of kids passing the state’s battery of tests instead of on longitudinal growth over time. This move obscures important growth data on how well or poorly districts and schools are doing in improving student achievement over time.]
Meanwhile Ritz’s sparring with the board is part of a much-larger war being waged by traditionalists in the Hoosier State to stop the two decades of bipartisan reform efforts. Since taking office this past January, Ritz and her allies have engaged in a dirty war against reformers. This has included leaking e-mails to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco showing that predecessor Bennett had amended calculations underlying the A-to-F grading system, as well as e-mails about efforts by Bennett and Daniels to eliminate books from ed school curricula that have little to do with the actual job of teaching children. [Today’s move by the state inspector general to bring Bennett before a state ethics commission for allegedly violating campaign finance rules, an allegation which spawned from Ritz’s leaks, certainly plays into her hands.] For Ritz, the goal is to bloody reformers in order to roll back the measures she and her allies, including the National Education Association’s now-insolvent state affiliate (on whose board she previously served) so strongly oppose. Ritz’s efforts also help traditionalists on the national level, who are looking for another champion for the failed policies and practices they hold so dear.
But reformers haven’t been just on the defensive. Earlier this year, Gov. Pence moved to assert greater control over education policy over Ritz’s opposition by forming the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which is now at the heart of the latest battle between the superintendent and the board. Pence also took back from the state education department control of the state Educational Employment Relations Board, which referees battles between districts and NEA and American Federation of Teachers affiliates. Yesterday’s attempt by the board to take the Common Core review out of Ritz’s hands is as much another salvo in this battle as it is a legitimate effort to speed up a review that Ritz, no fan of the standards, has handled with what can only be politely called deliberately slow speed. For reformers, weakening Ritz (and playing upon her general lack of savvy as a state education leader) is critical to advancing systemic reform. Ritz’s walkout yesterday only served them well, especially as portrayals of her tantrum in media outlets such as the Indianapolis Star (along with the fact that the state board is ultimately in charge of deciding who reviews Common Core) makes her look rather juvenile.
But it would be rather simplistic to blame all this dysfunction on political gamesmanship. The bigger problem lies with a system of bifurcated governance that serves no one — especially Hoosier State children– any good at all. It is time for Indiana to finally move control of education policy to the governor’s office where it belongs, and eliminate both the superintendent’s office and state board of education altogether.
The harmonious working relationship between Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels, and Ritz’s predecessor, Bennett — which led to such reforms as the launch of the state’s voucher system, implementation of rules requiring aspiring teachers to pass the PRAXIS 1 test before being allowed into ed schools, and the development of the A-to-F grading system — was an exception to the norm. During the early part of the last decade, Daniels, along with Democrat and Republican reform allies such as former Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Stan Jones and state senate education committee chairman Teresa Lubbers (who now holds Jones’ old job) sparred with Bennett’s predecessor, Suellen Reed, over reforms such as implementing curricula standards and revamping the state’s inaccurate graduation rate calculation, which allowed failing districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools to report that 90 percent of its students graduated from high school even when that wasn’t even close to reality. Daniels’ appointees to the state board of education, including longtime adviser David Shane, effectively made life miserable for Reed. This ended in 2008 when Daniels backed Bennett for the state superintendent’s job, effectively forcing Reed to step down after 16 years on the job.
Before Daniels, Reed battled with O’Bannon and his successor, Joe Kernan, over other reforms. In fact, O’Bannon and his fellow reformers (including Jones, who had lost the race for school superintendent to Reed back in 1992) were so frustrated with Reed’s intransigence — especially in her unwillingness to set higher test proficiency scores that would reveal how poorly districts were doing in improving student achievement — that they moved to strip the state education department of its role in setting cut scores. That job is now in the hands of the state education roundtable which, though the superintendent holds a co-chair seat, is effectively controlled by the governor with help from the state higher education commission.
So there’s nothing new about the current sparring between Ritz and Pence, along with their respective allies. But the consequences of the feuding now weigh more-heavily upon the state than it did a decade ago. Because of the battle between Ritz and the state board over A-to-F grading (as well as because of Ritz’s intransigence and the state education agency’s lack of capacity to deliver timely data), information remains unavailable districts, other school operators, and even families. Districts and school operators are now resorting to their own calculations in order to figure out what grades they may receive and determine any consequences they may face for any faltering results. Because families can access the state voucher program if their kids are attending schools with F ratings, the delays also mean kids being stuck in failure mills and less time for families to shop around for schools by the end of this academic year.
Even if Ritz and Pence were all on the same page, the governance structure is just unworkable for the long haul. Because of earlier sparring matches, state education governance is now divided between a board of education that is technically in charge of policy, but lacks the agency structure to do so; a state superintendent who runs the education department, but isn’t actually in charge of important aspects of education policy-making such as setting cut scores on tests; a governor who controls the education budget, but lacks statutory power over policy; and an education roundtable that sets scores, but doesn’t have any lever over other aspects of education policymaking. Add in the state higher education commission, which, until Bennett’s tenure and the move by Pence to launch CECI, has long been the vehicle through which governors have advanced their reform efforts, and you now have a structure that breeds policy and operational dissonance.
The efforts of reformers, including legislators such as House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning to build support for their agenda at the statehouse, along with Bennett’s short tenure as superintendent, these flaws were papered over. But now, with traditionalists and reformers in open warfare, the problems of the Hoosier State’s byzantine governance structure have come into full view. Add in Ritz’s own incompetence as a state education leader and other flaws within state law – including the fact that no one, not even the superintendent, is designated to be the chair of the state board — and the problems are magnified. Of course, Indiana isn’t the only state with a messy governance structure
Much of this sparring wouldn’t exist if Indiana took an important step eight years ago and handed control of the state education department — and the superintendent’s job — to the governor. This was something both Daniels and his most-immediate predecessor, Kernan, proposed to do during the 2004 gubernatorial campaign, and one that could have been accomplished by the end of Daniels’ first year of office through Senate Bill 517, which would have made the superintendent’s job an appointed post by 2008. But it didn’t happen because Bob Garton, then the president pro tempore of the state senate, didn’t want to battle with the NEA’s influential affiliate and traditional districts as well as push the rest of Gov. Daniels’ agenda; the fact that Republicans barely controlled the House of Representatives — and that some in that caucus owed their allegiance to the NEA and school district bureaucracies back home — also made the effort a nonstarter.
Reformers also had an opportunity two years ago to overhaul the governance structure as part of the array of reforms passed under Daniels’ and Bennett’s watch. But it didn’t happen. Why? Because reformers in the state never gave much thought to the possibility that traditionalist opposition, along with the general suspicion among many Hoosiers about what they considered to be Bennett’s “outsider” agenda, could lead to the superintendent losing office to anyone, much less someone like Ritz, a longtime NEA local president. Hoosier State reformers (and their counterparts in the 47 other states where governors don’t have direct control over education policymaking) failed to remember this: The structure of school governance can be as much a culprit for why reforms don’t happen as it can be a reason for why strong action can be accomplished quickly. Oh, and there’s also the fact that putting governors in full charge of education policymaking helps all citizens by putting one person in charge of education policymaking who can be held accountable by voter for success or failure.
But now, thanks to Ritz’s own machinations (which have actually done more to help the cause of reformers than aid her in making the case to keep her in office), there’s a new opportunity to finally restructure state education governance. It is up to Gov. Pence — who has done little of substance so far on the education policy front outside of kowtowing to Common Core foes — to make this a reality. Starting now, Pence should propose to make the state education department a cabinet agency. Under such a plan, the superintendent would be appointed by the governor while the state board of education (along with the education roundtable) would be eliminated altogether; to give appease those Hoosiers who worry about the governor gaining too much power, the governor’s appointment can be confirmed by the state senate or by both houses of the General Assembly, if need be.
If there is any time that Gov. Pence should use his political capital to advance reform, it is now. It would Hoosier State children plenty of good.