It’s hard to know exactly how to explain the mess, or, as Indianapolis Star writer Tom LoBianco termed it, the “true political disaster … at hand,” in Indiana over the issue of public education, or rather, what passes for public education policymaking in the state.
We have the Republican leadership of the state — including the governor, Mike Pence — trying to strip powers from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a veteran educator who won election to the post in 2012 by defeating Tony Bennett, the incumbent who was a protege of former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
We have Pence suddenly seeking to halve the length of a new standardized test — from 12 hours to six — just weeks before it is supposed to be given to students.
And we have various players in the debacle blaming each other while students, teachers and parents can only look on in horror and wonder how it will all play out.
Why is this happening?
It seems important to note that these two facts are not unrelated:
1. There is strife between Ritz and other statewide officials.
2. Ritz is the only Democratic statewide officer in Indiana.
Republicans in the state have been furious with Ritz since she won, because she won, and have been looking for ways to take away the powers she holds as chairman of the policymaking State Board of Education. That position has long been awarded by state law to the elected superintendent, at least until now.
The Indiana House approved a bill Monday, 58 to 40, that would remove Ritz from her position as chairman of the State Board of Education and change the law that now awards that post to the elected state superintendent. The bill goes on to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved by the Republican majority. The bill would allow board members, who are appointed by the governor, to pick their own leader.
As for the tenor of the discussion, David Long, the Republican president of the Indiana Senate, said by way of explanation for why the legislature would want to remove her as board chair: “In all fairness, Superintendent Ritz was a librarian, okay?” (Actually, Ritz worked as an educator and media specialist who won teacher of the year awards at two different schools.) David Bangert of the Lafayette Journal & Courier noted in this piece that “there aren’t too many nice ways to interpret that statement,” though Long later said that his words had been taken out of context and that Bangert didn’t like Republicans.
The current focus of contention between Ritz and Republican leaders involves the Common Core State Standards, or rather, the state’s retreat from the Common Core, and its effort to figure out which standardized test to give to students for the purposes of holding schools and teachers “accountable” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Indiana was among the first states to adopt the Core standards in 2010. An anti-Core movement began several years later, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Pence — who became governor in January 2013 — backed legislation that took the state out of the Core. He ordered the creation of new academic standards as well as a new standardized test for grades 3-8. A complicating factor was a requirement that the new standards had to be written in such a way that Indiana could continue to qualify for federal education funds, meaning the drafters could not entirely abandon the Common Core’s approach and substance. And the new test had to meet federal requirements as well.
Ritz recently announced that the new test, a revised version of the ISTEP+ (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus) would require 12 hours to take. Pence said that was too long and, on Monday, ordered a review of the exam and told Ritz to cut that time in half immediately. Pence, however, doesn’t have the power to force her to do so, at least not at the moment. Daniel Altman, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education, said that the test was lengthened to comply with federal mandates and the Pence-approved new state standards.
According to the Indianapolis Star:
A communication gap exists between the governor’s office and the agency, but it is unclear where that breakdown occurred: Pence said Ritz assured him the test wouldn’t be longer, while Altman said Ritz would have shared whatever information the department had with the governor.
There was a Twitter storm in support of Ritz before the House vote that became the leading trending topic in Indianapolis for a while, and this was the essence of the tweets:
— RTV6 Indianapolis (@rtv6) February 9, 2015
So who is to blame for the testing debacle? LoBianco looked at all of the players — among them Ritz; Pence; CTB/McGraw-Hill, which designed the test; House Speaker Brian Bosma; Senate President Pro Tem David Long, who supported new standards as long as they didn’t anger the Core-supporting U.S. Education Department; and the U.S. Department of Education, for setting conditions that states had to meet to obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind. His conclusion: there is “plenty of blame to go around.”