The long running dispute between Indiana Governor Mike Pence and State Superintendent of Education Glenda Ritz seems to have switched battlegrounds.
Both won their respective offices on fundamentally opposing education policy platforms. Pence adheres to the nation-wide Republican promotion of what has been labelled “school choice”, which means the use of public funds to finance vouchers for private schools and turning under-performing public schools into privately controlled charter schools.
Ritz, a former school librarian, teacher’s union leader, and public education activist, ran on a platform of strengthening public schools and against the increasing emphasis on high stakes state-wide tests, the state-run school grading system, the shift to performance based teacher pay, and what she and her allies saw as the general devaluation of the teaching profession.
This ideological opposition was aggravated when e-mails were discovered showing that Ritz’s predecessor – Tony Bennett, a former gym teacher and the GOP candidate who Ritz defeated – had tried to manipulate the school grading system for the benefit of a favored charter school while he was in office. Republicans blamed Ritz for the e-mail release. Tensions mounted when, soon after Ritz took office, Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation, C.E.C.I., to reside within his office and staffed with his personal appointees. Ritz viewed Pence’s creation of a parallel education department as an attempt to usurp her policy making power.
Ritz sued Pence, charging a violation of her constitutional powers. The suit was dismissed on a technicality last fall. However, this issue became moot when Pence announced last week that he was dissolving his education center effective February 20th. He coupled this move with an announcement that he would be requesting the state assembly pass legislation allowing the state board of education to elect its chair. The superintendent is by law automatically chair of the board. However, the Governor appoints the other ten members of the board.
Mark Stoops, member of the state senate for district 40, which includes all of Bloomington and most of Monroe and Brown Counties, is a member of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.
“I’d like to think Pence saw the writing on the wall and I think what this means is they’ve decided to go after Ritz and make her elected position an appointed position,” Stoops says. “That’s a real problem.”
Since the mid-19th century Indiana’s constitution has recognized the office of education superintendent as separate from all other branches of state government and it is unique under state law in being the only elected government department head. Consequently, Ritz and others have seen Pence’s efforts to usurp Ritz’s power as being in violation of the state constitution and the state code.
However, Senator Stoops does not hold to this view.
“I believe that the legislature votes and approves a measure to remove Superintendent of Public Instruction as automatic chair of the Board of Education, that would probably be legal,” Stoops says.
Since her election, Ritz has found support in the state assembly for many of her policies, in particular the senate supported maintaining federal Common Core standards.
However, Senator Stoops thinks that the majority of the members of the General Assembly will go along with Pence’s campaign against the current superintendent of education.
“Unfortunately I think the message from the past election is that the public doesn’t really care what they do and they’ll use that as an opportunity to push more privatized public education,” Stoops says.
Senator Stoops noted that several candidates running as democrats during the last election, some of them teachers and principals, and strong advocates of public schooling, were leading in the polls up to the election. However, they were defeated after a last minute mailing from the Republicans claiming support for public education, and promising to increase funding for the public system.
“I think we have to be wary because some schools are seriously close to being in a position of being taken over, and people need to understand that this is imminent,” Stoops says. “This is something we could see in Monroe County pretty soon.”
Indiana already leads the nation in the creation of charter schools. Governor Pence has promised to increase the pace of this process.