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Education strife reaches new low


Who benefits when elected officials engage in battle? Certainly not taxpayers, who ultimately pick up the legal tab. Certainly not their constituents, whose best interests are sidelined during the fight. The time for battle is Election Day, when candidates make their case and voters choose a winner.

In terms of education policy, the battle should have ended last November, when Democrat Glenda Ritz soundly defeated incumbent Republican Tony Bennett to become superintendent of public instruction. That Ritz struggles for authority to carry out her platform nearly a year later is an affront to Indiana voters and the democratic process.

The lawsuit she filed against the GOP-controlled State Board of Education on Tuesday represents the breaking point in a relationship sorely tested by Gov. Mike Pence, whose $25,000 campaign contribution to Bennett clearly defined him as a supporter of the so-called reform agenda, favoring charters and choice. If Ritz’s 1.3 million votes showed that Hoosiers wanted to stop or slow the agenda, the governor and GOP-controlled General Assembly certainly have not acknowledged it.

Since Jan. 1:

•The State Board of Education, at Bennett’s last meeting, lowered the professional standards for an Indiana teacher license.

•The legislature expanded the one-year-old voucher program to make 60 percent of Indiana families eligible for the private-school entitlements.

•Lawmakers voted to write the A-F school grades into state law, even as they acknowledged the current grading formula is unintelligible.

•The governor used an executive order to create a new education bureaucracy, the Center for Education and Career Innovation, with two administrators and a 16-person staff paid for with money quietly slipped into the biennial budget last spring.

•The state board voted, in defiance of Ritz, to hire its own staff, at a cost to taxpayers likely to exceed $200,000 a year.

While the new state superintendent has graciously tried to work with the appointed state board for months, Ritz gave up this weekend and filed suit when Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma responded to a request from the GOP-controlled state board to order the Legislative Services Agency to calculate school A-F grades. The State Board of Education members allegedly communicated among themselves by email, excluding Ritz, the board chairman, who was traveling in China with Global Indiana.

The lawmakers claimed the delay in labeling schools was unacceptable, even though they were silent a year ago when Bennett held the grades until Oct. 31 so his staff could rewrite the formula. Christel House Academy, a charter school operated by a wealthy Bennett campaign donor, saw its grade raised from a C to an A under Bennett’s new formula.

The 2012 process wasn’t hampered by the major problems Ritz was saddled with this year, when CTB/McGraw-Hill’s computer malfunction disrupted ISTEP+ testing statewide and scores had to be reviewed for errors.

In pushing ahead, Bosma and Long want the state to use a flawed grading formula to label schools, even though John Grew and Bill Sheldrake, the experts they appointed to investigate the grade-change incident, concluded the formula should not be used in determining whether the state should take over a struggling school.

If the same formula isn’t valid for determining school interventions, how is it valid for use in teacher evaluations, school labeling or any other purpose?

Grew and Sheldrake also recommended that Ritz’s Department of Education be allowed adequate time to examine results and to review and respond to appeals from schools. At the same time, Ritz is under pressure to replace the flawed formula, a process she, along with Steve Yager, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, is overseeing.

The governor and legislative leaders take a chance in forcing this showdown. They are betting that voters rejected Bennett, not the intrusive policies he pushed on local schools. So convinced are they in the popularity of teacher evaluations, Common Core State Standards and private school vouchers that they seem willing to challenge the election’s outcome.

A lawsuit among public officials is no way to debate education policy, but it might be the only way stop elected officials intent on overruling Indiana voters.