Bill would let state education board select its own chair

The elected Indiana superintendent of public instruction would no longer be the automatic chair of the State Board of Education under legislation Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, filed Tuesday.

It’s a proposal endorsed by Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican who currently appoints the other board members, and essentially dismissed by Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who won office two years ago.

Senate Bill 1 would change the way the board is structured.

Currently, the governor appoints 10 members to serve on the board. The superintendent of public instruction serves by law as the chair. Indiana is the only state with such an arrangement, and it’s created problems ever since Pence and Ritz were elected in 2012.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the board's frequent fights with Ritz over control of the education policy during the past two years make the change necessary.

"You can point fingers either way, but the fact of the matter is that it's not working and that's not good for education in Indiana," Long said. "We have to change that. So we've come to the conclusion that it's the best way to do it."

The bill proposes to change the membership structure and the way the chair is chosen. If approved, the governor would get eight appointments to the board with legislative leaders appointing the other two, who could not be members of the General Assembly.

The superintendent would still serve on the board – becoming the 11th member – but would not necessarily be the chair.

The bill calls for the 11 members to elect their own chair. Other provisions would remove the requirement that no more than six board members be from one political party and that at least four members be active teachers.

Ritz said in a written statement that she’s focused on her current position – not on the politics of changing the position for the future.

“I have responsibilities to the students in our schools, to taxpayers and to voters,” Ritz said.

Pence endorsed the policy last month in a speech to lobbyists and public officials attending the Indiana Legislative Conference in Indianapolis. “It is time to take the politics out of education in Indiana – or at least out of the State Board of Education – and get back to the business of investing in our schools in ways that prepare our kids for the future that awaits them,” Pence said.

Holdman, the author of the bill, said the way the state is currently handling the board does not allow good communication and dialogue on issues to happen easily. Holdman also said that he does not see any backlash or conflict if the bill is passed and foresees cooperation among the members.

“It shouldn’t really make any difference who chairs the committee, and once things settle down, I believe that you’ll see that folks are able to get along and work out their differences,” he said.

SB 1 has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure and has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he considered the bill a "blatant political attack" on Ritz's authority.

Lanane said the current system has worked during times when the governor was a Democrat and the schools superintendent was a Republican.

"We've been able to work it out in the past," he said. "I think this will be viewed in a very political way."

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