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COMMUNITY VOICE

It's time to change to an elected state board of education

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - 12:01 am

The seemingly endless battle between Gov. Mike Pence and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz continues. The issues of conflict are too numerous to list, but the battles are severe, with students and taxpayers being the losers.

Some have suggested that the superintendent should become an office appointed by the governor. While change clearly is in order, we need to be careful about that move.

This isn’t the first time considerations have been proposed to make the office appointed rather than elected. One only has to go back to the first term of Gov. Evan Bayh to find serious conflict between the two offices. Dr. H. Dean Evans, perhaps the most highly regarded school superintendent in Indiana at the time, had been selected by Gov. Robert Orr to complete the term vacated by Dr. Negley. Orr and Evans then developed the A-plus program that included Primetime (a program to reduce class size) and increased state testing to monitor student achievement. Additional funding was included along with added requirements regarding school attendance, etc. The program was well-received and enjoyed broad support.

With the election of a new governor, Bayh, came the political need and/or desire to place his stamp on the Department of Education. The conflict became significant, and Evans chose to move to another leadership position. The A-plus program was no longer a priority.

Suellen Reed, superintendent of Rush County Schools, became the new Republican candidate. She went on to win numerous terms and always received the highest number of votes among Republican state office seekers. During the Bayh, Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan years, various approaches were used to impose the will of the governor’s office on the Department of Education.

The Education Roundtable, co-chaired by the governor and Reed, served as the melting pot for education change. O’Bannon and Kernan, both gentlemen of integrity, worked well with Reed, and students were well-served. The commissioner of higher education also became active in advocating higher expectations and accountability for Indiana students and schools. PL 221 was a product of their joint cooperation and was passed into law in 1999. Absent the subsequent federal No Child Left Behind, Indiana would have been well-served by the 1999 statute.

Reports that come my way regarding the present mess paint a different picture. The professional manners of O’Bannon and Kernan vanished. Big-time politics involving huge sums of campaign contributions drive decisions and now carry the day. And most decisions seem made with one eye on opportunities for higher office in Washington, other states or higher education.

The latest publishing of the Pence-driven critique of Ritz’s attempt to seek continuation of a Bennett -initiated waiver clearly undercuts Ritz with the feds.

As has been evident for many years dating back to the Orr/Evans/Bayh period, the desire for a new governor to place his/her stamp on public education happens. Pence’s creation of his own department as a staff counter to the Department of Education to thwart the new superintendent of public instruction goes far beyond precedent.

I think there is a better alternative to the present practice. Indiana voters should elect state school board members in a manner similar to how local school boards are elected, nonpartisan, one board member to be elected for each congressional district. There should be staggered terms of four years each with term limits of three terms. The elected state board would then employ the state superintendent.

Why would this be a better solution? Elected board members would be directly accountable to the voters. Having worked in local school districts with elected board members for most of my career, parents and students matter to them. Local businesses matter. Fiscal accountability matters. And the direction and programs of our schools would remain vibrant and full. The politics of a changing governor’s office wouldn’t change the focus from educating the whole child to three or four areas of testing. Planned and measured change would be driven by the voters, the governor and the Legislature. An elected state board of education would be an elected and a strong voice for public education.

Increasingly the state board of education appears primarily accountable to politics. As the governor changes, so will they. Students, parents and teachers face a constantly changing, thrown-together curriculum measured by a hastily contrived state-mandated exam that has no consistency, proven reliability or validity.

Time for change? Yes; let’s take the time and get it right.

Roger Thornton is a resident of Bluffton.