Bills weakening school chief’s power advance in House

The elected state superintendent of public instruction would lose authority over several areas of education policy under Republican-backed proposals approved Thursday by an Indiana House committee.

One bill endorsed on a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled House Education Committee would change state law so that Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, would no longer automatically be the State Board of Education's chairman. Another would shift control of areas such as teacher evaluation, testing and student data from Ritz to the board, which is dominated by Republican Gov. Mike Pence's appointees.

Ritz, who is the only Democrat controlling a state government office, denounced the bill that would allow the board to elect any member to the chairmanship as an unnecessary "political power move."

Republicans maintain the board's frequent fights with Ritz over control of education policy since she won the 2012 election make the change necessary.

Ritz argued that major changes in the Board of Education's authority shouldn't be undertaken without a broader study by legislators.

"I have spent the last two years doing what the General Assembly asked and what our schools needed," she said. "Yes, there has been the politics, but the discourse and debate has led to good policy implementation and positive change in our education system for students."

Pence called last month for the change to allow the board to pick its own chairman. Other Board of Education members are picked by the governor.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, told the committee the board chairman change was needed to resolve the board's "dysfunction" and that 36 states allow their education boards to elect their own leader.

Ritz supporters criticized the bill giving the Board of Education more control over policy areas as a power grab that would be a duplication of the Department of Education's duties and a waste of taxpayer money.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, who sponsored the authority-shift bill, said he believes it clarifies when the board should be the policymaking body, as current law has some overlapping responsibilities with the Education Department.

"These things probably should have been cleared up a long time ago," Thompson said.

Those bills now head to the full House for consideration. A committee of the Republican-dominated state Senate is scheduled on Monday to consider proposals for allowing the Board of Education to pick any member as chairman.

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