Bitter Feud Boils Over in Indiana Regarding State’s Shaky NCLB Waiver

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 10, 2014 4 min read
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At the end of last month, Indiana submitted a revised request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind in response to concerns from the U.S. Department of Education. But instead of calming the education policy and politics environment in the state, this request has exacerbated longstanding grievances.

At a July 9 meeting, the state board considered (and ultimately voted to adopt) a resolution that board members said would ensure the state’s revised waiver request complied with Indiana law. In discussing the resolution, board members also said they didn’t get a real chance to discuss and consider the amended waiver before it was submitted by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Ritz blasted the resolution, at one point unsuccessfully attempting to rule it out of order and keep it from being put to a vote. There was even a dispute over whether the state’s waiver ulimately belonged to the state department of education or the state board.

“It is an attempt to say solely that my department is not doing its job. It’s insulting,” Ritz said of the resolution.

Some Background

On May 1, as my colleague Alyson Klein reported at the Politcs K-12 blog, the U.S. Department of Education identified several failures by Indiana to live up to policies set out in its NCLB waiver, including requirements to intervene in low-performing schools. The department faulted the state for not ensuring low-performing schools were changing their strategies and practices. The federal department also sought evidence from Indiana that its new standards (designed to replace the Common Core State Standards) would prepare students for college and careers, a key waiver requirement.

Indiana had 60 days to respond to the federal department’s report, and on June 30, the state department submitted a revised NCLB waiver plan that would extend the state’s waiver into the 2014-15 school year. The state department has posted a full list of amendments Indiana is seeking to its waiver in response to the U.S. department’s concerns—for example, the Indiana department will explicitly require school districts to implement turnaround principles for the next three years (see page 21). It would also institute a new planning and monitoring process for priority schools not in the federal School Improvement Grant program in the 2014-15 school year (page 22).

So where’s the bitter feud I mentioned in the headline? As I wrote about earlier this year, tensions between Ritz, a Democrat, the state school board, and a new K-12 agency created in 2013 without Ritz’s knowledge or support by Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, have been a problem in the state for several months.

This dissension has affected a variety of issues, from teacher-preparation requirements to A-F school accountability. This fight has featured a lawsuit brought by Ritz against the state board, as well as her decision to walk out of a state board meeting even though board members did not consider it adjourned (Ritz is chairwoman of the state board). The situation had become so bad that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he had never seen dysfunction like Indiana’s.

“You Don’t Like the Resolution”

In essence, the resolution put forward on July 9 by board member Brad Oliver stated that the revised waiver request submitted by Ritz would have to comply with state laws regarding A-F accountability and teacher evaluations. Oliver said the resolution was merely an attempt by board members to ensure that they had sufficient oversight over the amended NCLB waiver, and that nothing in the resolution would interfere with the state department’s authority.

But Ritz, who was elected in 2012, angrily replied that the resolution served no purpose because everything in the waiver complied with Indiana law. Moreover, she said, state board members had supplied very little input while the state department was formulating its revised waiver, and was belatedly attempting to undermine her authority. She methodically read over each point in the resolution, and asked where the waiver her department submitted didn’t follow the relevant law.

“I have never used this waiver to make policy,” she said.

In response, Oliver said Ritz was failing to make the case that the resolution was legally out of line, and that her only clear position seemed to be that “you don’t like the resolution.”

She also swatted aside board member Tony Walker’s assertion at one point that “it’s the state board’s waiver.” There was also a disagreement over which attorneys should be addressing the board in the first place, as well as an argument over whether members could hold a discussion before a vote. And she took a few shots at the Indiana Center for Education and Career Innovation, the agency created by Pence that I mentioned earlier, saying that CECI constantly and unfairly looked over her shoulder and critiqued her work. (Ritz hasn’t been shy about saying CECI itself was created by Pence to weaken her power.)

The only moment of levity came when state board member Dan Elsener attempted to mollify Ritz by saying, “It’s never personal and it’s never political,” a comment that triggered groans and laughter from some in the audience.

Ultimately, Oliver’s resolution was approved by a 7-3 vote of the board. Of course, what’s important but still undetermined is how the U.S. department will respond to what Ritz submitted. But the environment at the state board seemed to reach new toxic lows, Chalkbeat Indiana reporter Scott Elliott indicated:

The full resolution passed by the state board can be read below:

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