Political, Policy Feuds Roil Indiana’s K-12 Landscape

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 10, 2014 8 min read
Jill Olecki, with her son Iggy, age 1, speaks at a hearing in Indianapolis on the state’s draft academic standards.

For anyone seeking a mixture of fierce education policy fights, governance struggles under a spotlight, and wrangling over the hottest K-12 topic in the nation—the common core—Indiana is the perfect venue.

The key leaders are clear, and the conflicts aren’t drab affairs. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat swept into office in a 2012 upset, unsuccessfully sued the appointed state board of education in October when board members sought help from the GOP-controlled legislature on A-F school accountability.

A spat at a November state board meeting about the powers of a new agency created last year by Republican Gov. Mike Pence became heated enough that a mediator was assigned to help. Ms. Ritz, a former school media specialist, then cried foul over a plan the agency discussed to remove her as head of the state board.

And now Indiana is poised to replace the Common Core State Standards with something different but not entirely dissimilar, with uncertain consequences for testing, accountability, and instruction.

The environment became so tense that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a group of reporters in January, “It’s a level of dysfunction that I have never seen before.”

Relative calm has prevailed more recently, and cooperation has emerged in some areas. But the atmosphere is a far cry from the dynamic that prevailed from 2009 through 2012, when then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and then-Superintendent Tony Bennett, both Republicans, frequently collaborated.

“The different people in different roles expose different weaknesses in the system,” said Gordon Hendry, a Democratic member of the state school board appointed last year by Gov. Pence, who, like Ms. Ritz, took office last year.

Although several states are having vigorous debates about repealing or slowing the implementation of the common-core standards, which were adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, Indiana has gone furthest in that direction. The state is now on the verge of adopting new draft standards to replace the common core, which covers English/language arts and math.

Draft Standards

The draft standards, developed by Indiana teachers and professors from state universities, are a combination of the common core and prior Indiana content standards from the last decade. They’re the result of a measure passed last year that mandated a review of the common core and the consideration of new standards—a law rooted in common-core opposition from GOP Sen. Scott Schneider and Indiana education activists.

The state board is scheduled to vote on new content standards April 9.

“In actuality, we’ve been teaching both as a transition,” Ms. Ritz said in a phone interview last week, referring to the previous state standards and the common core.

She cited her particular concern about the common math standards. During her campaign in 2012, Ms. Ritz expressed skepticism about the common core, but she indicated that outright opposition to the standards hasn’t been her focus.

“It’s a good time right now to decide what it is that we feel we should keep, what is it we feel we should change,” Ms. Ritz said. “It’s never been about common core or no common core.”

Brad Oliver, a state board member appointed by Gov. Pence, said he’s pleased with the ongoing dialogue and the clear steps officials know they must take. “I don’t think we’re that far from reaching a consensus on standards,” he added.

Even so, state legislators were poised early this month to officially void the state board’s 2010 adoption of the common core. And some anti-common-core activists believe the state is about to adopt merely a warmed-over version of the common standards.

But Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican who chairs the House education committee, argued that despite his own concerns about the common core, the time has come for Indiana to move on.

“The irony is that the legislature has never gotten involved in standards before,” he said.

Looming Issues

See Also

See related story, “Standards Become Classroom Reality in Indiana.”

The common core is far from the only issue on policymakers’ agenda.

The state’s A-F school accountability system, for example, was upended following revelations that then-Superintendent Bennett altered the grade of an Indianapolis charter school in 2012. Ms. Ritz said she’s satisfied with a major shift to include student growth as well as performance on various indicators as part of the future A-F system.

Those changes were developed last year by a panel that included input from both Ms. Ritz and legislators, and were later adopted by the state board.

But the state board still haven’t decided precisely which data will go into creating the rankings. Mr. Oliver indicated that state leaders must still about the extent to which growth would matter in comparison with performance before a new system of A-F accountability is final.

Crucially, it remains to be seen if board members and others will heed Superintendent Ritz’s call for what she says is the most important upcoming issue: a state assessment focused on “real diagnostic information” for teachers, and not a pass-fail test. She also wants less testing in general, and less of a focus on student data.

Meanwhile, an Indiana House bill that would prioritize student data and format the information for easier use by lawmakers when considering K-12 and workforce issues doesn’t augur well for that approach.

“Any one of those issues can bring back tension to the relationship between the board and the state superintendent,” Mr. Oliver said.

The tension in Indiana’s education governance is now built into the system, and isn’t confined to sporadic arguments.

Indiana voters have often split their ballots on governor and state schools superintendent: From 1988 through 2004, they selected a member of one party as governor and a member of another party as schools chief. But the relationship between Superintendent Ritz and Gov. Pence has been particularly tense.

The governor last August created a new agency, the Center for Education and Career Innovation, to foster greater cohesion between public schools, job training, and the workforce. As the CECI has tested its power over standards and legislative initiatives, its authority has also become relatively detailed—for example, the state board’s staff is now filled out by employees at the CECI, not Ms. Ritz’s education department.

Both sides say they’ve established an ability to work together. Claire Fiddian-Green, the governor’s special assistant for education innovation, who leads the CECI, said Ms. Ritz and Gov. Pence have developed a close partnership to promote and support “works councils” throughout the state to improve regional career and technical education.

“I would characterize the relationship as very good right now,” Ms. Fiddian-Green said.

While she called having a “second education agency” in the state problematic in some cases, Superintendent Ritz also said: “I feel very comfortable in talking with members of the board, members of CECI, members of the legislature, about educational topics.”

Political Machinery

Still, Ms. Ritz’s ability to change some aspects of state education policy is limited. For example, Indiana’s growing tuition-voucher program, a legacy of Mr. Daniels and Mr. Bennett, is essentially immune to any opposition from the superintendent.

Teresa Meredith, the president of the 45,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association, Ms. Ritz’s most prominent backer in the 2012 election, argued that the superintendent has had to deal with the “tremendous disdain” of many state education leaders, who have treated her unfairly, Ms. Meredith said.

As Ms. Ritz progresses in “learning the political machinery,” Ms. Meredith said, she’ll likely become more vocal and forceful.

“She was elected. The voters didn’t ask Governor Pence to create CECI,” said Ms. Meredith. She accuses thenew agency of “babysitting” the superintendent.

That sentiment, generally speaking, isn’t entirely confined to Ms. Ritz and her political supporters. Rep. Behning, though he praised Gov. Pence’s leadership, said he wasn’t sure it was ultimately necessary for the governor to create the CECI in order to accomplish key goals.

And while Republicans enjoy majority control in both houses of the legislature, Gov. Pence’s track record in 2014 indicates that the K-12 policy terrain doesn’t create an easy ride for anyone.

For example, the governor’s plan to pilot and then roll out an early-education voucher program for low-income students in 2015 (the next time Indiana will pass a two-year budget) was bottled up by Republicans in the Senate in early March over concerns about cost and government power.

Blazing a Trail?

Gov. Pence took to the media in late February to sell the idea, but as of Education Week’s deadline this week, it was unclear if he would succeed. (The legislative session’s last day is March 14.)

Some state officials argue that Indiana’s volatile education-governance environment could actually turn the state into a role model. Ms. Fiddian-Green, the aide to Gov. Pence, said Indiana gets “a lot of questions” from other states about the CECI’s approach to workforce development.

“We welcome the spotlight,” she said. “We should expect to be measured.”

And Danielle Shockey, the deputy state superintendent, said that “a perfect storm of events"—specifically, the state’s second look at the common core—is allowing Indiana to follow a natural progression of forming new standards, then selecting a new assessment, and finally deciding on the right accountability system.

“You’d want them all to be hand in glove,” said Ms. Shockey, who was hired by Ms. Ritz.

Whether policies actually work hand in glove or lead to clenched fists in Indiana, Superintendent Ritz said she’s prepared.

“I’m never going to shy away from tough conversations,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Political, Policy Feuds Roil Indiana’s K-12 Landscape


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