Pence’s Board of Education overhaul wins backing

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's call to overhaul the State Board of Education won the support of the two top legislative leaders Thursday, setting up what could be one of the most acrimonious education fights the state has seen.

Pence announced Thursday that he would like to have his appointees to the State Board of Education select their own chairman, a move that places Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz in danger of losing the chairmanship. Pence won the backing of House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long shortly after his announcement.

The backing of both Republican leaders, who preside over supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, makes the overhaul all but certain.

It also sets the stage for another visceral education battle between Democrats and public school supporters and Republicans and conservative education reform advocates.

Pence attempted to soften the blow Thursday in his annual speech outlining his goals for the 2015 legislative session. He announced he was ending the Center for Education and Career Innovation, the second education agency he created last year that has sparred routinely with Ritz and the Department of Education.

The governor framed his education proposals as a peace offering to Ritz.

"We'll also need to fix what's broken in education in Indiana. We've all seen the headlines about the State Board of Education, seen the confusion, even the friction at the highest levels of state government," Pence said.

Pence also said he would seek to expand vouchers and said he was signing on to a legislative effort to rewrite the state's school-funding formula. But he offered few details for most proposals in a 30-minute speech in which he sometimes had to remind the audience to applaud.

Ritz issued a brief statement Thursday, shortly after Pence announced his plans.

"While dissolving CECI is certainly welcome news, there are other aspects of the governor's legislative agenda that are concerning for public education in our state. I look forward to working with the legislature and the governor on the Department of Education's legislative agenda and other critical issues during the upcoming session," she said.

The battles between Ritz and Pence — who stand opposite each other on the vast majority of education issues — have drawn national attention. Ritz sued the governor's appointees to the board last fall after they sought to move calculation of the state's "A-F" school grades from her department. A month later she stormed out of a meeting amid a fight over literal agenda-setting.

The meetings themselves have been marathon acts, with Ritz and Pence staffers at times edging each other aside at the podium before the board. Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan derided the "deep dysfunction" in Indiana's educational leadership.

Bosma and Long had quietly mediated behind the scenes over the past year or so. But both said they were fed up after no progress was made in the past year. Bosma said he did not want to assign blame to either Pence or Ritz.

"We were told by at least one of the parties that there were no problems, that all was well," Bosma said. "So it's fairly clear that's not the case, and honestly we need to stop the sideshow and focus on what's important. And the governor's proposal is one option to make that happen."

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