by Rodric Bray

I would like to address the proposed legislation affecting the State Board of Education and Superintendent Glenda Ritz. I know this is a topic of interest to nearly all Hoosiers. Please read this in its entirety. This is a little lengthy, but I want to make my position clear on this important and complicated matter.

First, there has been some confusion about this issue. There is virtually no talk of changing the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to an appointed rather than elected position. I certainly would not support that. As such, there is not a movement to strip Superintendent Ritz of her powers. The issue moving forward is a proposal to change the makeup of the State Board of Education. This proposal certainly impacts the Superintendent, and I am acutely aware of opposition to this idea. One alternative under discussion in the General Assembly is changing the policy that makes the Superintendent the automatic chair of the Board.

As I have consistently said, there is merit in making some changes to the makeup of the State Board of Education. Depending on how the bill reads, I may vote for it, but I do not intend to vote for a bill that simply removes the Superintendent as automatic chair of the Board and does nothing else to ease the tensions and dysfunction of the Board.

By way of explanation, let me say a couple things about corporate governance generally. Whether the organization be private or public, for profit or nonprofit, it has never been good policy to have the Director or Chief Executive Officer as the Chair of the Board. In fact, Indiana is one of only two states that make the Superintendent of Education the automatic chairperson of the Board of Education; Oklahoma is the other. Other states choose their chair from the membership of the Board. Even our local school boards do not have their local superintendent act as the chair of the board.

Currently our Board is made up of eleven members, including the Superintendent and ten members appointed by the Governor. Only six members can be chosen from one political party. Currently the Board is made up of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Unfortunately, our State Board of Education is experiencing real and substantive dysfunction. The head of the Federal Department of Education has even said Indiana currently has “deep dysfunction”. This dysfunction adversely impacts our children (including mine who are currently in public elementary school). These problems manifest themselves in numerous ways, including an ISTEP exam likely to exceed twelve hours and not being able to get simple issues on the Board agenda for discussion.

I am aware that many who read this will be quick to put the blame on the Governor, the Republican Party or the State Legislature. Let me just say that my life experience tells me when there is dysfunction on the level we are talking about here there is plenty of blame to go around. By way of example and not to caste blame, I suggest reading a letter to the Editor (printed in Indy Star on July 15, ’14). This Letter to the Editor was penned by a Democrat member of the State Board of Education this summer.

I think that illustrates my point. I don’t find casting blame to be helpful or productive. Rather, the success of our system depends on the willingness of all to engage in a civil and substantive debate about how to improve our system. The various bills circulating through the General Assembly on this issue are all an effort to help resolve this serious problem. Senate Bill 1 will likely be voted on very soon in the Senate. It differs from the House bill voted on recently.

In order to improve the bill I filed an amendment to Senate bill 1. My amendment would change the makeup of the Board of Education as follows: The Governor would no longer have all the appointments. Instead he would only have four appointments; two of these would be required to have experience as an educator. The Superintendent would be given two appointments to the Board. She currently has none. The Superintendent would remain a member of the Board just as she is today. The House of Representatives would have one appointment, as would the Senate. The Board would then choose its own Chair. It is my most sincere hope that by diversifying the Board in this way, members could coalesce around one person to serve as Chair and cure the dysfunction.

I should also say a little about this legislative process. Whatever the Senate votes on regarding this matter, will not necessarily be the final version. My proposal has not yet made it into the Senate Bill, but I will continue to work to that end. As you know, before a bill becomes law it must pass out of the Senate and the House in exactly the same form. The House has passed a version that will almost certainly be different than the Senate version. The House Bill will come to the Senate and the Senate Bill will go to the House in the next few weeks. At the end of the session there will be conference committees assigned to try to make those bills identical. I point this out just so everyone will understand this will continue to be a work in progress until we complete our session in late April, this year. I will continue to improve this to the best of my ability until that time.

Rodric Bray is a State Senator.  He is from Morgan County.