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Rejecting the voters’ will

Associated Press
Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, and Sen. Dennis Kruse, right, R-Auburn, look over the wording in a bill during an education hearing on Jan. 9. The committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill to opt out of the Common Core State Standards.

In what clearly is a response to Democrat Glenda Ritz’s election as superintendent of public instruction, House Republicans have filed bills to gut her authority as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education and co-chairwoman of the Education Roundtable. Ironically, their efforts coincide with a battle over national school standards that those same boards endorsed with little debate more than two years ago.

If approved, the bills limiting Ritz’s control make it more likely for controversial classroom policy to be shoved through without public dialogue.

It was the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor to represent each of the state’s nine congressional districts plus an at-large seat, that was responsible for adopting the Common Core State Standards in August 2010. Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett was a leading proponent of the national standards, an initiative by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Opposition didn’t arise in Indiana until well after the Roundtable and state board had approved Common Core. When two parochial school parents, Heather Crossin and Erin Tuttle, learned that school vouchers came with requirements to follow the new standards, they began working with the General Assembly’s most conservative members to pull Indiana out of the Common Core. In a hearing on the Common Core bill Wednesday, Ritz called for a study of the state’s academic standards. She earlier endorsed the concept of national standards but expressed concerns about the assessments aligned with them. The tests would replace ISTEP+ and the current end-of-course assessments.

Ritz’s ability to affect any influence on state education policy, however, would be severely compromised by the proposed legislation:

•House Bill 1309, filed by House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, would dilute the superintendent’s authority over the State Board of Education. It would require the board to elect a vice chairman with authority “to call meetings, set and amend agendas, arrange for witnesses and carry out other administrative functions related to the meetings of the state board.” It also makes the commissioner for higher education the third co-chairperson of the Education Roundtable, currently headed by the governor and state superintendent.

The effect would be to set up a 2-1 advantage for the governor and commissioner for higher education, who is appointed by a panel of 14 gubernatorial appointees.

•House Bill 1251, sponsored by Rep. Todd Huston, an Indianapolis Republican who once served as Bennett’s chief of staff, removes the requirement that at least four members of the State Board of Education be licensed educators currently employed in the schools. It also drops the requirement that no more than six members represent the same political party.

The effect could be to eliminate educators from the board responsible for education policy, as well as any bipartisan oversight.

House Speaker Brian Bosma was one of the few Republicans to acknowledge Ritz’s 142,000-vote margin after the election. He told reporters on Nov. 7 that efforts to make the superintendent’s post an appointed instead of an elected office would look like a power grab.

“It might have the appearance of a supermajority in each house reaching out to the single statewide elected official and trying to essentially eliminate that office,” Bosma said.

The speaker is wise enough to know that bills to limit Ritz’s authority are no less a rejection of the voters’ will. Bosma should exercise use of what he’s described as his “steady hand at the wheel” to squelch the legislation, and voters should keep a close eye on continuing efforts to make an end run around election results.