Last week, Gov. Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced their new appointments to the State Board of Education. The move came in response to legislation passed this session allowing the lawmakers to reconstitute the board.
We continue our profiles of the five new members with Byron Ernest, Speaker Bosma’s appointee and the head of Hoosier Academies, a network of Indiana charter schools focused on online education.
Ernest spent 25 years in the classroom, teaching agricultural science at a handful of schools across the state, before moving into an administrative role. He took a job as the principal of Emmerich Manual High School – one of the first failing schools to come under state control, and the first takeover school to improve its accountability grade above an F, under Ernest’s direction.
“As a reform-minded person, a person who likes to run toward challenges as opposed to away from them, I wanted that challenge,” Ernest says. “I thought ‘Wow, what a way to help kids.’ I’m excited that we were able to start the journey of that being a great school for those kids.”
Inevitably, his experience at Manual leads many to question what Ernest will do for the state’s takeover policy as a member of the State Board of Education.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Do I believe in takeover?’ and I have to say yes. But, I like to qualify and say, ‘Is that the answer in every case? No,'” Ernest explains. “I think we have to look at, is the school in a position to where there changes can be made to make it a great school and a highly-functioning, highly-effective school? I think it has to be an individual, case-by-case basis.”
The topic of charter schools and their success is also a divisive issue in Indiana. As the head of one of the state’s charter networks, Ernest says he knows some people will question his views on school choice – views he holds firmly.
“As a believer in school choice, I think we also need to be providing some assistance in what is the best choice?” Ernest says. “Then, when someone makes the choice, we have to figure out how do we deliver that education the best way for that student?”
Also on Ernest’s list of the most important issues in Indiana education policy: school accountability. One of his charter schools, the Hoosier Virtual Academy, which is also considered failing under the state’s A-F system, recently approached the former INSBOE to ask the group to calculate A-F grades differently for schools that serve unique populations of students.
Ernest also emphasizes family engagement and what he likes to call “student success.”
“Student success may be the student is going to college, but we also need to talk about students that are going into the military, the students who want to go to a trade school, the students who are ready to go into a business right now,” Ernest says. “The career and technical piece is huge, and just the way we look at ‘college and career readiness.’ It’s a great tagline, but are we really doing the career readiness piece? I think a lot of people may be basing too much success on, ‘are they going to college?’”
In addition to heading schools, Ernest has served in a leadership capacity on a number of different education boards and policy-related committees, including groups under the state Department of Education and House Speaker Bosma. He says he thinks this experience will help him as a member of the INSBOE.
“I think the big thing for me is consensus-building,” Ernest says. “I’m okay with conflict. You and I might disagree, your idea might not be the same as mine, but yet when we get them together we might have something better than what we started with.”
Ernest says he spoke with state superintendent Glenda Ritz late last week, and assured her that he is committed to working with her, not against her.
“Will we always be on the same side? Probably not, but I’m not sure you want a board where everybody does agree either, because I’m not sure you move anything forward there,” Ernest says.
Ernest will meet Superintendent Ritz and his fellow board members for the first time Wednesday, for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.