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Ind. Lawmakers Eye Proposals to Strip Power From Elected K-12 Chief

The slugfest between Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz and other state Republican officials is entering its latest and perhaps decisive round this winter, with lawmakers mulling proposals to eliminate elections for the state superintendent in the future, and to strip away some of Ritz's authority and hand it to the state school board.

The legislative proposals from the GOP legislators could fundamentally shift the balance of power in what might be the most openly contentious relationship in state education politics. 

In fact, the argument has reached such a divisive stage that during a Jan. 28 debate over the legislation to increase the state board's power at Ritz's expense, Democratic Rep. Vernon Smith introduced a bill amendment to eliminate the state board of education altogether—yes, you read that correctly. That amendment failed 9-4, however, according to Chalkbeat Indiana reporter Scott Elliott.

Just under a year ago, I traveled to Indiana to report on the various feuds between Ritz and other officials in the state's political power structure. Ever since Ritz, a Democrat, upset the incumbent GOP superintendent Tony Bennett in 2012, she has fought with other state officials, including Republican Gov. Mike Pence, but in particular with board members. In fact, each side's scorn for the other oozed out of a recent comment about Ritz made by Indiana Senate President David Long. Long dismissed Ritz's qualifications this way: "She was a librarian, OK?" (That's a reference to Ritz's previous work at an Indianapolis elementary school.) 

Pence himself announced an ambitious K-12 policy agenda for this legislative session. He even made a nominal peace offering to Ritz by eliminating the state education agency he had just created in 2013, an organization that Ritz said was conceived largely to undermine her power. But that move has been overshadowed by subsequent events. 

So what's in the works? 

House Bill 1609 would allow state school board members to select a chairman or chairwoman from among themselves. Currently, state law requires the state superintendent to hold that spot, but Ritz and board members have disagreed so often about proper board procedure, as well as policy, that at one point a mediator from the National Association of State Boards of Education had to be called in to try to smooth things over. The most prominent incident was when Ritz adjourned a 2013 board meeting and left the room despite the objections of board members. That relationship hasn't really gotten any better. 

House Bill 1486 would shift several responsibilities from Ritz's office to the state board, from keeping the board's official records to overseeing the performance of "turnaround" schools. It would also allow the board to appoint an executive director. Critics of the bill say that this proposal would essentially revive the agency Pence agreed to eliminate (it was called the Indiana Center for Education and Career Innovation).

Senate Bill 24 would eliminate elections for the state superintendent beginning in 2021, and instead give governors the power to pick state school chiefs. The next two elections for state chief are in 2016 and 2020, so this bill doesn't target Ritz directly or right away. But lawmakers have expressed a clear desire to give the governor more power over who pulls the strings at the state education department. Right now, 12 states hold elections for their chief state school officers.

It's still early in the session, so it's unclear which proposals will reach Pence's desk, and in what form. However, there is clear momentum among Republicans in the Hoosier State to take away Ritz's car keys and put her firmly in the back seat. 

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