We’ve been hearing the same story for months: State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and members of the Indiana State Board of Education don’t really get along. People say the drama keeps the group from getting anything accomplished.
We may see a remedy for the problem during the 2015 legislative session.
Could appointing the superintendent, rather than electing someone to the position as is customary in Indiana, force the state’s education leaders to work together?
Old Problems, New Solution
Bickering has become somewhat of a norm at state board meetings. Issues of power and responsibility have made the agenda in addition to – and sometimes, overshadowing – actual education policy matters, and it’s become a major problem. So much so, that Governor Mike Pence made “playing referee” a centerpiece of his 2015 legislative agenda.
“To maintain our momentum and to implement new policies, we’ll also need to fix what’s broken in education in Indiana,” Pence said at a legislative conference late last year. “For education to work in our state, it has to work at the highest levels.”
Pence offered an olive branch of sorts by eliminating his education agency, the Center for Education and Career Innovation, appeasing Ritz. The governor has also called on legislators to allow state board members to elect their own board chair, rather than let the superintendent automatically assume that role.
But neither of those ideas address what many people see as the root of the problem.
Right now, the state superintendent is an elected official, whereas the governor appoints all other state board members. Therein lies the issue: Ritz is a Democrat. All other current board members were appointed by a Republican governor and it’s this political dichotomy that seems to fuel the dysfunction.
It’s also the impetus for a new bill the Indiana General Assembly will consider this session.
Senate Bill 24 proposes allowing Indiana’s governor to appoint the state superintendent of public instruction after January 10, 2021. It would also change current laws shifting responsibility from the superintendent to the governor in appointing members of several education-related panels.
Senator Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, authored the bill, and he says the issue has been around for some time in the General Assembly.
“We had this discussion when Evan Bayh [and] Frank O’Bannon [were] governor, and there were Republican superintendents. We had this when Mitch Daniels was governor, and he had a Republican and then another Republican,” says Buck, who has been a member of the state legislature since 1994. “I think that it’s important that the governor have the opportunity, no matter which party.”
Buck says the move to appointing the position makes sense because of the governor’s role in state policy.
“Most of the states have superintendents that are appointed by the governor, because the governor ultimately is the last person in the food chain, so to speak, to have accountability for education,” Buck says. “Even the President of the United States appoints his own ‘superintendent of instruction,’ the Secretary of Education.”
An Issue of Timing
Much like the power struggle among the state’s top education leaders, this proposal is not new.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has pledged to make the push for an appointed superintendent one of its top legislative priorities this year. Chamber president Kevin Brinegar says through his tenure, the superintendent and the governor have almost never been on the same page with respect to major issues. That’s why he says he believes the head of the Department of Education should be appointed, similar to every other state agency.
“We need consistency and one agenda for education that voters can assess and determine whether they like it or they don’t like it in the next election,” Brinegar says.
It seems unlikely change will come that soon. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, says he’s wary of taking the choice of a schools’ chief away from voters, especially in Indiana’s current political environment.
“The political reality is when you have two Republican supermajorities – all statewide offices except for the one that ought to be appointed – it doesn’t have a very good appearance to make that change right now,” Bosma says.
Daniel Altman, spokesman for Superintendent Ritz, has said that taking such an important decision away from voters because of partisan bickering is “short-sighted and simply wrong.”
That’s why Buck says he suggest waiting until the 2020 election cycle for the proposal to kick in. By then, Pence will no longer be governor, since that office has a two-term limit, and there’s a possibility Ritz will have vacated the superintendent’s office, as well.
“There are those that want it in 2016, and I don’t think that’s fair to the current superintendent,” Buck explains. “That gives the illusion to some people that you’re wanting to do something in a punitive way to her, when in fact that’s not the case. This way, come 2020, it will be a fresh governor, [and] when they are elected in November, they have the ability to appoint their superintendent of instruction.”
Kindred Spirits In Wyoming
Indiana is currently one of 12 states with an elected superintendent – and one of at least two states considering changing that.
A similar scenario of tension has played out between the state board of education and the elected state superintendent in Wyoming. The legislature there is also talking this session about the possibility of shifting to an appointed schools’ chief beginning in 2019.
“There does seem to be a discrepancy between whether or not people view the superintendent as sort of a policy setter for education or a manager,” says Aerin Curtis, an education reporter at the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.
As in Indiana, Wyoming’s superintendent acts as the head of the Department of Education and a member of the state board. Where the two differ is in the law defining how each comes to power. State superintendent is one of five elected positions defined as such in Wyoming’s constitution. Indiana’s Constitution requires there be a State Superintendent, but leaves the method of selection up to legislators. The position has been elected since its creation in 1851.
Although there’s a different complicated history behind Wyoming’s current situation, the way Curtis explains the situation sounds vaguely familiar.
“Most recently, I think this has been exacerbated by personalities that maybe got off on the wrong foot or just simply worked poorly together,” Curtis says. “But this is something that’s been a problem for awhile because there really aren’t clear lines on who has power where.”
Curtis says she’s not sure whether her state legislature will make any moves to change the method of selecting their superintendent. Buck says the same about Indiana.
The legislature will consider Buck’s bill during the sixteen-week legislative session, which kicked off January 6.