Indiana Senate OKs bill that lets governor appoint schools chief

Indiana senators on Tuesday approved making the position of state superintendent of public instruction a job appointed by the governor and no longer elected by voters. The approval came after a similar proposal was rejected earlier this session.

The fate of the initiative, a top priority for Gov. Eric Holcomb, was put in doubt in February when the Senate unexpectedly defeated their bill, 26-23.

In the issue's return to the Senate chamber Tuesday, a modified House proposal was accepted in a 28-20 vote, with five Republicans flipping their no votes to yes.

Democrats mounted a protest at the start of the measure's discussion, arguing that a Senate rule stipulating that 26 or more "nays" means similar language cannot be considered again that session. They also challenged its consideration in a Senate panel—but both efforts were unsuccessful.

GOP Senate Leader David Long has said amendments made in committee rendered the bill substantially different than the previous measure.

Both versions give the governor's office authority to appoint the head of the Department of Education. A Senate committee added a residency and degree requirement for the governor's appointed schools chief, set stipulations for previous or current employment and moved the date the law would go into effect from 2021 to 2025.

The date change means Holcomb won't be affected by the law because governors are limited to two four-year terms.

"Today what we are trying to do is bring to the office of the governor not more power, but more coordination, for the growth of jobs in this state," Sen. James Buck, R-Kokomo, a bill sponsor, said Tuesday.

The effort to make the chief an appointed position comes after four years of conflict between Democratic former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz, then-Gov. Mike Pence and Republican leaders in the Legislature over the state's grading system for schools and private school voucher system, among other things.

Some proponents of this bill contend that conflict isn't the sole reason for the push this year, saying the idea has been supported by people on both sides of the aisle over the years.

Still, it was a subject of discussion Tuesday, with Sen. Andy Zay describing education as a "punching bag" the last four years.

"It is my opinion that, in putting the governor in line with the superintendent, that hopefully what we had the last four years and the politics that permeated the Department of Education and education throughout the state will not occur again," the Huntington Republican said.

Indiana is one of only 13 states to elect the leader of the state Department of Education.

Those opposed to the measure say Indiana residents have a right to speak and should not lose their opportunity to elect a schools chief aligned with their values.

"What message are we sending to the people that sent us down here today?" Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville asked. "… We are getting ready to usurp, to take power from voters."

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