Dispute sends Indiana education board into chaos

A meeting that produced a new outline for grading Indiana schools turned chaotic Wednesday when the state's top education official stormed out, escalating an already testy battle with Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz abruptly left the meeting of the state school board she chairs when a Pence appointee tried to transfer certain student assessment powers from her office to a second education department created by the governor earlier this year.

"This meeting is adjourned," Ritz said repeatedly, while packing her things and walking out. Department of Education staff quickly followed suit, while leaders of Pence's second education department and the other board members stayed put. It is unclear whether Ritz officially ended the meeting.

A Pence administration lawyer said she would ask the attorney general's office whether they could take action without Ritz, who is the board's chairwoman.

The latest rift came shortly after the board approved a new outline for the state's A-F school grades. The 9-1 vote was meant to keep the board in compliance with a state law that requires it to approve A-F categories by Friday.

But the new categories are essentially just a framework that remains otherwise empty. Members said they didn’t feel prepared to endorse a system by which the grades will be determined because the state’s standards and testing programs are under review as well.

“The worst thing we can do is get it wrong,” said board member Brad Oliver. “We owe it to teachers and students – primarily students – and parents and communities to get it right.”

The board voted to use a 100-point grading scale – with a 90 earning a school an A, an 80 means a B, a 70 is a C and a 60 is a D. That's similar to the grading school many teachers use for students.

It will replace a scale of one to four.

Board member Andrea Neal was the lone vote against the measure. She said approving categories now “forces us to put the cart before the horse.”

She said under state law, the A-F grades must be based on measurements of individual growth toward proficiency. “Proficiency at what?” she asked. “As of today, we don’t know.”

The General Assembly earlier this year ordered the state board to approve a new A-F system that was based more on student growth than achievement. The legislature also created a panel of educational experts to recommend a new system to the board.

That recommendation occurred two weeks ago and included a long list of proposed changes for the grading system, including the move to the 100-point scale. But panel members acknowledged that they didn’t have all the information they wanted to complete their work. Most notably, they said the proposal had not been tested using actual student data.

That concerned the state education board members as well. And so the resolution the board approved Wednesday reflects that it will be doing additional work on those issue before determining how the A-F grades will be established.

Also last spring, the General Assembly ordered studies meant to determine whether the state will stick with the controversial Common Core education standards that the education board approved in 2010, create the state’s own standards or develop a hybrid. That process is to include a set of public hearings to take place next year.

Until those standards are set, the state board can’t determine the testing system that will be used to assess student achievement – and ultimately school grades. The timing troubled several board members on Wednesday.

But state Superintendent Glenda Ritz – who chairs the education board and co-chaired the panel working on the A-F grades – said that while additional work is needed on the A-F system, the recommendation was meant to be flexible enough to adapt to any standards or testing.

Wednesday's vote was a rare moment of unity between Ritz and the other members of the board in an ongoing education war. Ritz accused Pence Tuesday of conducting a "complete takeover" of education policy over the past month. A Pence spokeswoman said he has worked "in good faith" with Ritz.

At stake is control of Indiana's education system and the sweeping education changes put in place by former Superintendent Tony Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Indiana Republicans approved the nation's most sweeping school voucher law in 2011 and have expanded on it somewhat, in addition to dozens of other changes long sought by conservative education reformers.

Former Bennett staffers have accused Ritz of targeting Bennett with a series of public records releases, including a set of emails showing that Bennett and his staff overhauled the "A-F" grading system to improve the performance of an Indianapolis school held up as a leader in reform.

The other members of the state board, all of whom were appointed by Pence or Daniels, have accused Ritz of dragging her feet in implementing laws she openly campaigned against last year.

Board meetings have become a political circus, with Ritz refusing to recognize board members and those members frequently talking over her. Lawyers for the competing Ritz and Pence education departments have even offered competing legal advice to the board, while jockeying for control of the sole microphone reserved for witnesses to the board.

After Ritz left Wednesday, another board member, Republican Brad Oliver, said he was withdrawing the motion that sparked the fight. The motion would have moved facets of the state's career and college prep testing to Pence's second education department.

"I don't want to exacerbate this," Oliver said.

It's unclear whether the meeting was formally in progress at the time Oliver withdrew his motion, or whether Ritz had successfully ended it. Meetings are typically ended through a motion to adjourn, followed by a "second" support of the motion and a vote by the board.

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