Voters’ education

When Indiana voters chose Jennifer McCormick over incumbent Glenda Ritz in 2016, some believed it would spell the end of cringe-worthy exchanges between the elected state superintendent and appointed members of the State Board of Education.

The high-level drama might have ended since McCormick took office, but tension between the superintendent’s office and the administration is still great, even with Republicans in full control. The political wrangling Hoosier voters have repeatedly rejected in state education policy continues, as McCormick made clear when she announced Monday she will not seek re-election.

“When I got into this office, my charge was ‘I want to do what’s best for kids,’ ” said the former Yorktown schools superintendent. “I think back to that time … it was so cute. I was so naive.

“Now that I’ve learned the governance structure…things are very complicated in Indiana.”

The governance structure is complicated – by design. It was altered after Ritz defeated state Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2012. He was recruited to run in 2008 by Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration, which had its own rocky working relationship with another female Republican office-holder, four-term state Superintendent Suellen Reed. With Bennett’s defeat at the hands of public school educators and Common Core opponents after just one term, Gov. Mike Pence lost an eager partner in efforts to expand the state’s school voucher program.

His solution was an end run around the superintendent’s office. Pence issued an executive order creating the Center for Education and Career Innovation, with two administrators and a 16-person staff. The governor’s power play was assisted by legislative budget writers, who quietly moved $3 million in annual funding for the State Board of Education to the new agency, outside the authority of Ritz’s Department of Education. The 10 members of the state board all were appointed by the governor.

The Center for Education and Career Innovation staff acted so blatantly to undermine Democrat Ritz that criticism began to reach the governor’s office. Facing backlash, Pence dissolved the new agency in late 2014. But its work simply shifted to the State Board of Education.

Pence’s restructuring created outright hostility between the elected superintendent and some members of the appointed board. The tension prompted intervention from the General Assembly, which passed a law in 2015 that took two of the 10 board appointments from the governor and gave them to the House and Senate leaders. It also granted new powers to the state board, allowing its two-member staff to expand. There are nine administrators today, and the board’s 2018 budget appropriation was $17.5 million.

“It makes the state board the defacto Department of Education,” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said in 2015. “The people of Indiana don’t want two departments of education.”

But that’s what Hoosiers got, and it’s what McCormick faced when she took office last year. The General Assembly sealed the power grab a few months later by taking voters’ authority to elect the state superintendent and giving the appointment to the governor, effective in 2024.

In addition, much authority over student testing, voucher schools and more has shifted from McCormick’s Department of Education to the state board. The superintendent’s frustration with board staff has been apparent in some discussions, but she has continued to chair the meetings in a respectful and professional manner. But at Wednesday’s monthly business meeting, she announced she would not seek election as board chairman in 2019.

“The position of Chair, as structured by state leaders prior to my time in office, is irrelevant to policy outcomes,” she said in a statement. “My time and attention are better utilized without this unnecessary distraction.”

The deliberative, research-based and student-focused approach McCormick has attempted to take is stifled by political strong-arming in the wake of the power shift. To her credit, the superintendent is continuing to administer her department in a manner that serves school districts and students well. But the fate of sound education policy rests with Indiana voters, who still have the right to elect lawmakers who can challenge the actions taken in recent years. Each legislative candidate should be prepared to weigh in on the dramatic restructuring foisted on Indiana’s schools and students.