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The players
Glenda Ritz: A Democrat, elected state superintendent of education last November with 1.3 million votes. By statute, she oversees the Indiana Department of Education and serves as chairman of the State Board of Education.
State Board of Education: The 11-member panel composed of the state superintendent and 10 members appointed by the governor’s office. Until this year, the state board did not have staff or counsel separate from the Department of Education.
Center for Education and Career Innovation: A new state agency created by executive order by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, supported by a $5 million budget. Its staff members include officials who served under former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Decisive moment will chart state’s education path

At the heart of the dispute between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the appointed State Board of Education is this: Two dueling departments of education cannot function efficiently and wisely. A new education agency created by Gov. Mike Pence is making mischief in state school policy.

Any democratic process falters without clear lines of authority and responsibility. Those lines have been muddied by the new Center for Education and Career Innovation.

A resolution offered at Wednesday’s state board meeting touched off the latest conflict. State Board member Brad Oliver presented a resolution that would have handed full authority for the review of proposed academic standards to the governor’s new agency, cutting out Ritz and the staff of the Department of Education.

The state superintendent objected, noting her department’s statutory responsibility to develop and review standards for approval by the Education Roundtable, an advisory group, and then by the State Board.

The conflict came at the end of about four hours of discussion, much of it a polite and collaborative discussion. Ritz’s response to Oliver’s proposal was respectful, but stern.

She conceded the board has the right to schedule public hearings on the proposed standards, but said the Department of Education has the responsibility, by law, to seek input from kindergarten through grade 12 teachers and post-secondary professionals and present the material.

“There is a reason for the check and balance that we have regarding standards, because it’s supposed to be a check and balance,” Ritz told the board. “If this motion is made, I will have to deem it improper, because it does not follow the statutory obligations of the department.

“I’m just letting you know that if you make the motion, Brad, and if there is a second, I will have to rule it improper and go forward. It has nothing to do with actually getting this process done. It has everything to do with whose role it is. It is the department’s role. It is not the board staff’s role to engage in this.”

But the other board members would not yield, instead calling for direction from an attorney advising the new agency and then insisting on a vote on the motion their own chairman had ruled out of order.

In adjourning the meeting without a vote, the state superintendent said she would seek an advisory opinion from Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller on the dispute.

Critics quickly sought to portray Ritz’s action as a walkout similar to House Democrats’ 2011 protest. But she is not a minority party; she holds clear authority as state superintendent and as chairman of the State Board of Education.

Ritz told board members she would accept the attorney general’s decision, which might well go against her.

Her offer is a concession the board and the governor’s representatives have not made themselves.

Pence can defuse the divisive and counterproductive standoff immediately by acknowledging Ritz’s authority and dissolving the Center for Education and Career Innovation. Otherwise, the steady and sure progress Indiana schools have shown over the past two decades may stall.