- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Democrat Glenda Ritz won election as Indiana’s schools chief in 2012 after campaigning against the private school voucher program, the state’s A-F grading system for schools and other education initiatives that had been aggressively pushed by Republicans.

Now those Republicans, who control all other levers of power in the Statehouse, are working to shift influence over state education policy away from Ritz in frustration over the roadblocks they say she has erected to their various overhauls.

Ritz’s supporters protest that Republicans are disenfranchising a state electorate that gave Ritz 57,000 more votes than GOP Gov. Mike Pence received in the same election. But they have slim prospects of blocking the moves.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate want to change state law so that the state’s schools superintendent would no longer automatically serve as chairman of the State Board of Education. Another bill advanced by a House committee last week would transfer control of areas such as teacher evaluations, testing and student data from Ritz’s Department of Education to the state board, which is dominated by the governor’s appointees.

Rep. Vernon Smith, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, argues that no board leadership changes should come before Ritz’s term as superintendent ends at the end of 2016. Smith says to do otherwise would ignore the results of the 2012 election, when Ritz handily defeated Republican Tony Bennett.



“What we are doing is changing the will of the people at this point,” said Smith, D-Gary. “This is not the will of the people.”

But Pence wants the change, saying in December that it would help end the friction that has marked much of Ritz’s tenure at the board’s helm.

Ritz ended one board meeting abruptly after ruling a member’s motion out of order and walking out. She later sued the other members of the board, claiming they violated state public access laws when they sought to move calculation of the A-F school grades to legislative analysts.

House Majority Leader Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said Ritz is standing in the way of the Legislature’s education programs, which it expects the Board of Education to oversee.

“She was overwhelmingly elected to make sure that she implemented the policies enacted by the General Assembly,” McMillin said. “And the General Assembly was overwhelmingly elected to make sure they enacted the policies that the people of Indiana wanted.”

Ritz appeared before the House Education Committee last week to testify against the bill allowing the Board of Education to select any member as its chairman. She argued that the current system has been in place for more than 100 years and that her authority shouldn’t be changed in the middle of her four-year term.

Opponents of the proposed change argue that shifting control over education policy away from Ritz will lead to a costly duplication of services and reduce the superintendent’s office to a clerical role. They also contend that much of the board drama has been manufactured by Pence’s appointees.

State board member Brad Oliver, associate dean of educational leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University, said the changes would clarify overlapping responsibilities of the board and the Department of Education.

“I think if you look very closely at what we’re asking for, there’s nothing here that expands beyond the scope of what you’ve already asked us to do,” Oliver said.

Political divides have existed before between the governor and the schools chief. For 16 years beginning in 1989, Democrats occupied the governor’s office and Republicans held the school superintendent’s office.

Joel Hand, who was an attorney and later legislative liaison for Republican Superintendent Suellen Reed during that time, said there were disagreements over education policy but that the two sides were able to largely work them out.

Just because the current board has a clash of personalities doesn’t mean long-standing practices should be thrown out, said Hand, a leader of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, which opposes many of the Republican school initiatives.

“I don’t think that gives justification … to come in and change the duties and powers of a state elected official midway through a term,” he said.

Republican lawmakers who disagree could take more action in the coming week to enact those changes.

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