State education board meeting erupts as Ritz walks out

A tug-of-war between Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and 10 other members of the State Board of Education erupted Wednesday during a discussion about Common Core curriculum standards, leading Ritz to try to abruptly adjourn the meeting and leave.

At issue was a resolution that would have given the new Center for Education and Career Innovation – an agency created this year by Gov. Mike Pence – the authority to oversee the board’s study of Common Core, including public hearings and research.

But the underlying question is far bigger: Who now controls education in Indiana?

Ritz, a Democrat, said she ended what had become a chaotic meeting to stop the Pence administration from taking another step to usurp her power and that of the Department of Education she oversees.

“I was elected as Indiana’s chief education officer to be an advocate for public education,” Ritz said after the meeting in Indianapolis. “I have the duty to coordinate education policy and serve as a check and balance to Gov. Pence and the State Board of Education.”

But Pence, a Republican, later described education as a “shared responsibility” between his administration and the education department. Pence said his administration will “do our part to continue to build on the progress that Indiana has made for the sake of our kids and for the sake of their future.”

“I regret the misunderstandings and the friction that has resulted from that in the State Board of Education,” he said. “We'll be working through those issues in the days ahead.”

The battle lines were drawn last November, when Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett who had pushed through a number of education reforms – including vouchers and new school accountability measures – backed by Pence, GOP lawmakers and former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Ritz argues that since then, Republicans have worked to undermine her authority. The General Assembly last spring gave the board – whose other members have been appointed by GOP governors – more power over its own budget. And this summer, the board moved its money and staff to the new Center for Education and Career Innovation.

In the past, the Department of Education has always staffed the board, even when the superintendent and governor came from different parties. Now, Ritz said, the new agency is “undermining the exceptional work done every day by the Department of Education.”

“As you are all now aware, this is causing unnecessary conflict in education, which does nothing to serve Indiana’s children,” Ritz said.

But education board members say that Ritz is trying to strip their authority. They say she has repeatedly failed to put issues on the agenda they want to discuss and won’t recognize them to make motions for votes.

That’s essentially what happened Wednesday during the discussion about Common Core, a national set of education standards that the state board adopted in 2010. Controversy about the standards – particularly among conservatives and some educators – led the General Assembly to order a study to determine whether the state should stick with the program or create new standards.

That study is to include research, public hearings and other action by the state board. Member Brad Oliver offered a proposal that would have given responsibility for a number of those functions to the Center for Education and Career Innovation – working in conjunction with the education department.

Board members tried to move on without her, even as Department of Education staff packed up the equipment used to web stream the meetings live. Board members said without a formal motion to adjourn and a second, the meeting wasn’t over and tried to seek legal guidance to continue. But they eventually adjourned the meeting for a second time.

Meanwhile, the implosion led to frantic tweeting from reporters and others in the audience trying to make sense of the dispute.

“Just have to say, I’ve never seen anything like this at a public meeting in 20 years. I’ve seen a lot,” tweeted Scott Elliott, editor of education news website Chalkbeat Indiana.

Both sides of the dispute say they want to seek guidance from Attorney General Greg Zoeller about how to proceed. Zoeller went to Ritz’s office after the meeting to talk but he’s declined to talk about such discussions, citing attorney-client privilege.

Earlier this month, Zoeller’s office convinced a judge to drop a lawsuit Ritz brought against members of the board. Zoeller argued that Ritz couldn’t bring the suit without his representation or permission to use other attorneys, which she didn’t have.

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