Indiana's superintendent of public instruction would be selected by the governor instead of chosen by voters under a measure backed Tuesday by state House panel.
House Speaker Brian Bosma argues that making the position a gubernatorial appointment would ensure the schools chief and governor work together with a unified vision. The state's largest teacher's union and other advocacy groups oppose taking the decision directly away from voters.
Bosma's proposal comes after four years of conflict between the state's Democratic former schools chief, Glenda Ritz, Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Republican leaders in the Legislature. They clashed over the state's grading system for schools, the use of private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools, among other things.
Bosma maintains that his measure has no partisan basis and would serve to establish a clear chain of command with the governor as the state's point person on education. Opponents, though, see the move as a way to strip voters of their power to select an independent schools chief who reflects their education priorities.
Groups who represent teachers or advocate for public education say state voters know what they want when it comes to public education and ought to retain their power to choose a leader of the Department of Education.
"The customers are the voters," said Carol Craig, a representative from the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. "The ones who are on the front lines, the ones who are in and out of our public schools on a regular basis, the ones whose children win or lose based upon the quality of expectations, implementation, guidelines and support at the top level."
Plus, conflict between the schools chief and other education officials isn't necessarily a bad thing, said Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist John O'Neal. Healthy debate in the public policy arena can develop naturally as leaders iron out specific policies to help students, he said.
Opponents also question allowing non-Indiana residents to serve as schools chief and raise concern over appointed individuals' potential allegiance to the governor instead of community members who would be directly affected.
Indiana is one of 13 states where voters elect the schools chief. The other 37 allow either the governor or the board of education to select someone to fill the position.
The House Education committee voted 10-3 to send the proposal to the full House Tuesday. A companion bill in the Senate was endorsed by a legislative panel earlier this month and awaits a full floor vote as well.
Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he is "fully behind" the proposal, adding that economic and education matters are the most important duties for a governor.
"To have a secretary of education and a secretary of commerce, in my mind, work with the governor and the governor's office are of paramount importance to the future of this state," he said.