A proposal allowing the Indiana State Board of Education to elect its leader is now heading to the full state Senate.
The legislation would overturn the current law in which the state's elected superintendent of public instruction – now Democrat Glenda Ritz – automatically chairs the board.
The Senate fiscal policy committee voted 9-4 along party lines Tuesday to advance the Republican-backed measure. The Senate could vote on the proposal within the next week.
The GOP-dominated House on Monday approved a similar bill that supporters of Ritz say would disenfranchise voters who elected her as superintendent in 2012.
Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, now appoints all 10 other board members and they have clashed repeatedly with Ritz. The Senate proposal, however, would shrink it to a nine-member board made up of the state superintendent, four appointments by the governor and one appointment each for the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate.
Those backing the change in the chairman selection say it is needed to fix a dysfunctional board.
Bill sponsor Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, said he believed allowing the board to select its own chairman would address what he called its dysfunction over the past two years as Ritz and the other board members have struggled for control of education policy.
Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, questioned Holdman on his argument that corporate and not-for-profit boards function best with a chairman other than the chief executive.
Broden asked whether the Legislature should also fix boards of which Pence is chairman under state law, such as the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and Indiana Career Council.
"I'm not aware of that any of those other boards or commissions, that those have become issues that have risen to the level to get on anyone's radar," Holdman said.
Ritz supporters assert that the disputes have been generated by Pence's appointees who want to exert control over programs on teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools that were championed by former Superintendent Tony Bennett, the Republican whom Ritz unseated in 2012.
Broden said the arguments from Republicans about dysfunction on the board were "fig leaves" for a political power move to deprive Ritz, midway through her term, of a power that the schools superintendent has held for more than 100 years.
"I think voters did vote for a check on some of the things that were happening in public education," he said. "I think they did want more debate, more dialogue. I think they did want to slow things down."