House passes bill that would oust Ritz as education board chair

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The State Board of Education could be working under a new chair as soon as this summer under a bill that passed the Indiana House largely along party lines Monday.

House Bill 1609, authored by Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, would remove the elected superintendent of public instruction – now Democrat Glenda Ritz – from her position as chair and replace her with someone elected by the other board members, who are all appointed by the governor.

McMillin said the bill doesn’t strip Ritz of power and is “not an attack on democracy.” He said it is an effort to make sure the State Board of Education has a functional governance procedure.

But minority Democrats called the legislation a power grab.

“The people ought to be the final governors of how we run our classrooms and not the bureaucrats, because that is exactly what you are doing here,” said House Minority Leader, Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, “You are saying that the people don’t matter.”

Thirty-eight states have appointed chairs of their state boards of education. But in many states, the board members are elected.

SB 1609 is just one effort underway to shift power away from the state superintendent and to the State Board of Education. The House is also considering legislation that would move some responsibilities and money now handled by the Department of Education, which the superintendent oversees, to the board.

And the debate comes as Ritz, board members and the governor’s office have been waging a public battle over power, one that erupted Monday when Gov. Mike Pence tried to order the superintendent to shorten the length of time needed to take the state’s ISTEP test. Under current law, the governor doesn’t appear to have that authority.

House Majority Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, spoke in favor of HB 1609 on Monday, saying that the education battles are “dysfunctional and detrimental to students” and that the problem lies with Ritz.

But Rep. Shelia Klinker, D-Lafayette, urged lawmakers to hold the bill and wait until after the next election to act. Klinker said legislators need to work together and come up with better solutions.

The bill passed 58-40 now and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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