Indiana Bill Would Make Ed. Chief’s Position Appointed Rather Than Elected

By Daarel Burnette II — April 17, 2017 3 min read
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Update: The Indiana House passed this bill and Gov. Eric Holcomb indicated he will soon sign the bill into law.

A bill working its way through the Indiana legislature would make that state’s schools superintendent position appointed, rather than elected. The switch, which the state’s Democrats, who are in the legislative minority, all oppose, would drain politics from that state’s usually combative education policy debates, according to proponents of the bill.

Indiana’s previous elected superintendent, Glenda Ritz, was, among statewide elected officials, a lone Democrat in a heavily Republican state and—on several occasion—she and the state’s teachers union went head to head with Republicans over charter schools, vouchers, standards, and the state’s accountability system.

Ritz lost the partisan 2016 race to now-Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a former district superintendent who is a registered Republican and supports charter schools and a more stringent accountability system.

I visited Indiana during the most recent election, where the state’s standardized test and accountability system had become the center of the governor’s race. From that story:

High-stakes testing has roiled Indiana’s political scene for years, pitting business leaders, parents, educators, and politicians against one another and playing out in Shakespearean-like power grabs, scandals, and high-profile resignations.

In the wake of botched test scores last school year, Hoosiers revolted, and soon the state legislature placed a moratorium on the entire statewide testing operation.

Now, the anxieties, confusion, and anger over the future of ISTEP, as the exam is known, have spilled over into this year’s election cycle.

According to CCSSO, only 13 states elect their superintendents. Eight of those state positions are partisan.

In 1930 more than 33 state superintendents were elected, according to an essay written by Michael Kirst, the chair of California’s board of education, in the book “Who’s in Charge?” . But, over the years, as scandal-plagued local school boards lost their clout and education became more politicized, governors wanted to get more hands-on with education policy.

From the book:

“The growth of gubernatorial influence had its origins in state economic development strategies that used improved schools to help attract businesses and jobs. Southern governors with uncertain economies and historically weak school systems led the way in the 1970s and others soon followed. While Washington was expanding equity programs, governors and state legislators were impressed by arguments that local school officials had permitted academic standards to decline. Surely businesses would look favorably on state education systems that produced well-trained workers and good schools for employees’ families by requiring a more demanding curriculum, stricter requirements for teachers, minimum competency tests for high school graduation, and other such measures.

State superintendents’ roles are set to dramatically change in the coming years. Their expertise, political capital and ability to fulfill the administrative duties of hollowed-out state departments will matter greatly. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, state departments will be tasked with creating and implementing policy and then holding local education agencies accountable when they fail to implement those policies effectively.

State superintendent races have for years been full of one-issue platforms, such as getting rid of Common Core standards. And there’s typically a low turnout (Those who mostly turn out, Republicans have long complained, are teachers motivated by their union leaders). Oklahoma’s state superintendent last year faced two state felony charges for illegal campaign fundraising activities during her 2014 campaign. Elected superintendents also tend to have not-the-friendliest relationships with members of state boards who are appointed by governors or are also elected.

As Politico pointed out this past weekend, in the few elected state superintendent races left, union activists are charging Republican candidates and candidates who support expanded use of school vouchers and charter schools with doing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ “dirty work.”

Under the Indiana bill (an amended version of which now sits in the state House) the state’s superintendent of public instruction position would be eliminated in 2025 and replaced by a secretary of education that would be appointed by the governor.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.