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The Journal Gazette

Friday, January 12, 2018 1:00 am


Still the same

Flaws consistent amid state board changes

“It's not working, and it's not good for education in Indiana,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long when a 2015 bill was filed by his Republican caucus to change the composition of the Indiana State Board of Education and the selection method for its chairman.

Three years to the week, a state board reshaped by that legislation and led by a Republican state superintendent appeared just as dysfunctional and discordant as it did under a Democratic superintendent. The source of the friction also was unchanged: Another back-door attempt to adopt policy without the input of educators and parents.

Could it be the problem is not with the members but the administration of the board? And if Long and other lawmakers were worried about the effects of the board on Indiana schools three years ago, shouldn't they be concerned today?

Some history:

The State Board of Education, with the state schools chief as its chairman, operated as a functioning panel for many years, notably during the peaceful and productive 12-year-period when Republican Superintendent Suellen Reed served alongside Democratic Govs. Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan.

The working relationship became more tense when Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels was elected in 2004, but Reed stepped out of the way in 2008 for the governor's hand-picked candidate, Tony Bennett, who worked hand in hand with Daniels to pass the state's voucher law and the A-F school-grading system.

The drama began in 2013, after Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Bennett at the polls and differences surfaced among Gov. Mike Pence, the state superintendent and the board, whose members all were appointed by the governor.

In response, legislative leaders quietly slipped a provision in the 2013 state budget bill, shifting $3 million from the Department of Education, overseen by Ritz, to the State Board of Education. In addition, Pence issued an executive order creating a new bureaucracy, the Center for Education and Career Innovation. It was to be supported by the State Board of Education's new appropriation.

The spending sleight-of-hand was done so quietly that Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, missed it.

“Did we pass that in a law?” he asked when told of the funding switch. “Where did they get that appropriation?”

The 18-member Center for Education and Career Innovation worked so openly to undermine Ritz that public outrage began to build. Under pressure, Pence dissolved the agency in late 2014, but the State Board of Education simply picked up the mantle. Its staff grew from two members to 10, with an 11th employee added just last week. Josh Gillespie, director of external affairs for the state board, said the new hire fills a fellowship position paid for out of state funds. Leadership for Educational Equity, an organization of the reform-minded Teach for America corps, facilitated the hire, according to Gillespie.

The growing State Board of Education staff plays a major role in the increasingly uncomfortable board meetings, including Wednesday's contentious session in which members were asked to approve changes to the A-F school grade formula that will give additional weight to standardized test scores. Board member Gordon Hendry tried to table the proposal, which apparently was passed among board members for review and discussion in a series of emails.

“Some of this language didn't receive proper discussion before being drafted,” he said. “I would like a little more transparency in this process.”

But the process shouldn't have surprised Hendry or anyone else. It's the same one that prompted a costly lawsuit against the Center for Education and Career Innovation in 2014. The agency agreed to pay legal costs for the public education advocates who filed the suit, without acknowledging it violated Indiana open meetings law in coordinating email correspondence among State Board of Education members.

Yes, there is dysfunction within the State Board of Education. If Long and other Indiana lawmakers want it to end once and for all, they should look past the state superintendent and board members to see who is causing it. Policymaking in the dark is bad for education.