Republicans eye more rules on Ritz, education board dealings

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Indiana legislative leaders said Thursday that they are considering steps to broaden the Republican-backed proposal aimed at allowing the state Board of Education to replace the state superintendent of public instruction—currently Democrat Glenda Ritz—as its leader.

Top House and Senate Republicans said provisions could be added to the bill specifying what information the Department of Education must provide to the state board, which is currently dominated by appointees of GOP Gov. Mike Pence. Another addition being talked about would specify the Board of Education as a second state education authority in order to receive some data under federal education privacy laws.

Pence and Republican lawmakers have pushed for allowing the board to select any of its members as chairman, a move that would end a decades-old law that automatically makes the state superintendent the board's leader.

Ritz would remain head of the state Department of Education but would at least lose some control over the Board of Education's agenda under the Republican proposal. Both the House and Senate have approved versions of that proposal despite vocal objections during the session from Democrats and Ritz supporters, who say the change would undermine the will of voters who elected her in 2012.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long said education board members have complained about not receiving timely information and reports from Ritz's agency and that was an example of the dysfunction between Ritz and other board members as they've struggled for control of education policy.

"We're trying to look at it a little more deeply and say, regardless of who's chairing this board, are there other things that need to be resolved that allow the free flow of information to occur?" Long said.

Ritz supporters assert that the disputes have been generated by Pence appointees, who want to exert control over programs such as teacher evaluation, private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools.

And John Barnes, legislative affairs director for the Education Department, disputed that the agency wasn't properly sharing information with the board and said declaring a second state education authority doesn't seem to resolve any questions about rules and responsibilities between the department and the board.

"Our argument would be that's just going to muddy the waters and make things more difficult," Barnes said.

The General Assembly's adjournment deadline is Wednesday.

House and Senate leaders are also working to sort out differences over who would appoint the education board members. The board is currently made up of the state superintendent and 10 members.

A Senate-backed plan would shrink it to a nine-member board: the superintendent, four appointments by the governor and one appointment each from the Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate. House Republicans backed leaving all the current positions in place, while adding one appointment each for the House speaker and Senate president pro tem.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said the additional provisions won't help toward the stated aim of helping the Board of Education function better.

"Just sounds like me we're setting up deeper divides and potential for conflict," Lanane said.

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