“Dysfunctional” is commonly used to describe the condition of Indiana's state-level education administration. “Under siege” is a better description. The Indiana Department of Education and its leader, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, face an unrelenting attack by partisan opponents determined to undermine their work.
The attacks benefit only Democrat Ritz's political foes. They come at the expense of taxpayers, of good government and – most alarmingly – Indiana students, teachers and schools. They must stop.
The Center for Education and Career Innovation is the source of the strife. The agency is the creation of Gov. Mike Pence. It was not authorized by the General Assembly or vetted by voters in the 2012 election. While its stated mission was to integrate education and workforce training, its full-time pursuit has been to hamper the Department of Education's work and to lessen Ritz's effectiveness in the public's eye.
CECI has a willing partner in the State Board of Education, whose members – with the exception of Ritz as chairman – all are appointed by the governor. They appear to operate mostly as proxies for CECI Director Claire Fiddian-Green, bullying the state superintendent and micromanaging her department's work. While it nitpicks procedural matters under Ritz, the same body eagerly approved the Common Core State Standards at the urging of state Superintendent Tony Bennett, whom Ritz handily ousted in the 2012 election.
Consider CECI's latest handiwork: Fiddian-Green, with no authority to do so, sent a damaging critique to the U.S. Department of Education of Ritz's application for a waiver from requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The unabashed act of political sabotage endangers federal Title I funds, dollars used by schools serving the most disadvantaged students in the state.
Unlike Ritz, Pence's education czar is not an educator. As with many of the holdover appointees of the previous administration, Fiddian-Green is a former Eli Lilly employee who also served as president of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group supporting corporate-funded school reform. Her first assignment in state government was as director of the state charter school board, the vehicle created to authorize new publicly funded schools after Ball State University, the only statewide authorizer, tightened requirements for charter operators.
CECI's attack on Ritz and the Department of Education does not come cheaply. While the elected state superintendent earns $90,000 a year, Fiddian-Green is paid $120,000 a year. Another top CECI staffer was paid $110,000. The Times of Northwest Indiana cited figures from the state auditor in November showing that six of the 16 CECI staffers earned more than $100,000 a year. Prior to CECI's creation, the State Board of Education had a single staff member, and workforce development measures were ably handled by the Department of Workforce Development.
Taxpayer cost alone should be enough for legislative leaders to intervene in CECI's unprecedented attack on a state official. The cost to students, however, makes their inaction to date inexplicable.
As voters begin to consider candidates for the Nov. 4 election, Republican leaders should be prepared to explain why they haven't questioned the brazen power grab exercised by Pence and his new agency. Nearly a dozen educators are running for legislative seats in districts won by Ritz in 2012. If they tap into the same anger voters displayed in the superintendent's election, Republican leaders might finally have to explain why they have ceded control of education spending and policy to the governor.