- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The State Board of Education approved changes to the rating system for Indiana schools after a lengthy debate over procedural steps just hours before Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed bills overhauling the board membership and giving it more authority.

The board’s vote in favor of the new A-F school accountability system has been a long-awaited step forward after about two years of debate and public comment about the changes.

The new framework gives equal weight to both student improvement and performance on standardized tests - a factor not reflected in the current system. School grades were previously determined by student performance on the state’s ISTEP+ test, with additional points awarded for student growth.

Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who is the board’s chairwoman, called the vote a success since members were able to agree on a solution after spending much of Thursday’s meeting arguing over last-minute edits to the language.

“This was a great day for schools to be honest,” Ritz said. “We’re going to have a fair and transparent accountability system.”

The new approach could make it harder for schools to earn A’s, based on projections using last year’s data and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. Schools that earn consistent F grades over several years could face potential state takeover or intervention.

Several members of the board, such as Brad Oliver and Andrea Neal, expressed concerns about Ritz’s Department of Education altering the A-F rules so late in the game, rather than what the edits would do.

Oliver said he did not receive the new information until late Wednesday night and didn’t feel comfortable voting on something he wasn’t able to examine.

Neal said the department bringing in new edits at the end of a two-year process “is the very definition of dysfunction,” which is a description many Republican legislators used this year in pushing for changes in Ritz’s authority over the board.

Ritz argued that the proposed edits didn’t introduce new concepts, but simply aimed to clarify certain language.

“I don’t want to operate under anything that is not clear,” she said, but Ritz later agreed to hold off on additional changes until the original framework has been approved by the attorney general’s office.

The board currently consists of Ritz and 10 Pence appointees. A bill signed by Pence on Thursday will take away two of Pence’s 10 appointments to the board, and give one appointment each to the Indiana House and Senate leaders. The terms of the current board appointees end June 1.

Ritz will remain the board’s chairwoman as Republican lawmakers delayed a contentious change sought by Pence to allow the board to elect any member as its leader until 2017, which is after the next state superintendent’s election.

Other measures that Pence has signed give the board authority over development of the ISTEP exam and a new $10 million charter schools grant fund. The board membership bill also creates a vice chairman position, with that person having joint responsibility with Ritz for the panel’s agenda.

Those steps follow disputes between Ritz and Pence’s appointees since Ritz’s 2012 election over control of programs such as teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools.

Republicans say the changes clarify control of education policy, while Democrats maintain it undermines the will of voters who elected Ritz.

The board shake-up is unlikely to give Ritz any additional support, as Pence said Thursday his new appointments would focus the board on implementing the “policies that we’ve embraced.”

Pence said the changes will make sure board members “have the resources and the responsibilities that give them a fresh start at providing the oversight of education policy that the State Board of Education is designed to provide.”


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