Indiana’s appropriations for K-12 education is closing in on $8 billion, representing something like 50% of the state budget. Higher ed is another $1.8 billion. That’s a lot of money. For years, educational policy has been in flux due to the work of advocates who use the rhetoric of “choice.” It’s all about the children. But policy makers support kids’ education in much the same way parents often support kids’ sports: loudly, counterproductively, and, quite often, sincerely. And, just as it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that the parent is projecting some childhood dreams of glory on the young athletes, so too is it hard to ignore that big pot of money the policies of choice advocates will redirect to friends, well-wishers, and, quite often, themselves.
From the comfort of my couch, I see three basic fronts for this installment of the education struggle. As an immediate concern, we have the spectacle of ISTEP tests which will test endurance as much as intellect. Short term, we have legislation that will remove the Superintendent of Public Instruction from, what I am told, is a 100 year tenure as chair of the Indiana State Board of Education. Longer term is an effort to make the Superintendent of Public Instruction an appointed position instead of an elected position.
ISTEP Endurance Testing
The ISTEP endurance testing seems to be a product of the requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” combined with the recent dithering over Common Core. As you may recall, Indiana abandoned Common Core for reasons that remain unclear to me — other than there was a Tea Party notion that it was a federal imposition and therefore Obama and therefore bad. What the substantive problems with Common Core were, I still don’t know. Indeed, there were complaints from Common Core detractors that the new Indiana standards were too much like Common Core. (From the first link):
When Indiana stopped using Common Core standards last year and wrote its own, we were still required under No Child Left Behind to test our students on whatever standards we used. So the ISTEP+ had to change to reflect the change in standards. Educators have known since last summer that the test would be different, but the shock this week came when schools saw the amount of time the ISTEP+ would take.
And the difference is significant. Last year, a third grader spent a total of five hours and nine minutes doing ISTEP+ testing. This year, that amount jumps to 12 hours and 30 minutes. These increases are for every grade that takes the ISTEP+, not counting stress tests if a school has their students sit to complete those.
The fruits of this slap dash effort to appease Common Core detractors will now be realized by Indiana’s students who have to give the test for these Indiana Standards its shakedown cruise — piloting a lot of the questions. Gov. Pence has attempted to mitigate the political fallout from this through a last minute executive order. Certainly, the headlines he received were favorable — saying in most cases that he was taking action to shorten the test. (See, e.g., “Pence signs executive order to shorten ISTEP”) In reality, his executive order calls for the Office of Management and Budget to hire a consultant which it has done at an expense of $22,000. The first phase, at an expense of $11,000 will be for recommendations on Spring 2015 — though, turning the ISTEP battleship on a dime seems unlikely. (I’m full of mixed nautical metaphors today). The recommendations will come just as the testing is supposed to start. The second half of the consultant’s contract will be for Spring 2016.
Chair of the Indiana State Board of Education
The only slightly less immediate issue is HB 1609 which seeks to remove the Superintendent of Public Instruction as chair of the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE). The Superintendent is a Constitutional Office provided for in Art. 8, Section 8 of the Indiana Constitution. However, the duties of the Superintendent and the manner of selection for the Superintendent are left up to the General Assembly. The Superintendent’s role as chair of the SBOE is specified by IC 20-19-2-2. The Superintendent is the only member of the SBOE not appointed by the governor. As chair of the SBOE, the elected superintendent has something of a check on education policy over a body otherwise dominated by governor’s appointees. When former Superintendent Tony Bennett turned a largely ignored office into something that riled up the voters, they threw him out in favor of the current Superintendent, Glenda Ritz.
With new blood in the Superintendent’s office potentially upsetting the apple cart, the SBOE suddenly couldn’t get along with its chair. Note: this isn’t necessarily a party thing. The Republican Superintendent always seemed to be able to work with the Democratic Governors, and – though Governor appointees, IC 20-19-2-2 specifies that not more than 6 of the 10 appointees can be from the same political party (although the controls on who is in or out of a political party are a little sketchy). There are Democrats who also stand to profit off of the privatization of education. So, I would say this has more to do with conflicting visions of our educational future than with pure party politics. Advocates of traditional public education tend to favor Democrats and advocates of a more privatized vision tend to favor Republicans, but it’s not a 1:1 correlation.
Rep. McMillin’s HB 1609 recently passed by a vote of 58-40. It leaves the State Superintendent as the 11th member of the board but directs the SBOE to elect a chair from its membership in the July meeting. This effectively transfers control of the SBOE to the Governor entirely. The House rejected, by a vote of 69-26, a proposed amendment that would have had the Department of Education submit nominees from a process involving school districts in the area served by the vacant board seat and one that would have provided for direct election of SBOE members. (Another bill, SB 1, alters the composition of the SBOE to include fewer governor appointees and to include four appointees from the House and Senate that would likely consist of two Republicans and two Democrats) as well as stating that the Superintendent is not the automatic chair.)
The cursory explanation for the power grab is that having the Superintendent as the chair of the SBOE is just too dysfunctional. But I think that’s kind of the point of the current structure. Democratic systems of checks and balances are messy. Sometimes they don’t make the trains run on time. If you’re just going to put all of the power into the hands of the Governor and his people anyway, why let the citizens of Indiana have a direct vote on a position having to do with educational policy at all? Which brings us to:
Appointment of Superintendent of Education
Longer term, there is a proposal that would eliminate the Superintendent as an elected office and make it an appointed position. SB 24 would make that effective in the year 2021. (SB 500 has so much jammed into it, that there could be something about the Superintendent in there for all I know.)
Seems to me that, to the extent Republicans pass legislation that concentrates education authority in the hands of the Governor, they are being a little short sighted. Democrats don’t have much luck in statewide elections in Indiana. They have somewhat more luck in Governors races than in down-ticket races. I’m not one to put too much stock in the “messages” being sent by voters — the ballot box is not a very precise tool for communication. But, the fact that Tony Bennett was rejected as Superintendent of Education was probably as close as we get. His position was very specific to education. His tenure was very much about privatizing Indiana’s educational system and otherwise diverting money away from traditional schools. Despite being in a very favorable position (down-ticket, statewide race) in a very favorable year, Tony Bennett lost, receiving 48% of the vote to Ritz’s 52% – the first Republican to lose that race in 40 years. I have nothing against Superintendent Ritz, but I don’t believe the result of this race was so much about embracing her as it was about rejecting Bennett and his policies. Nevertheless, proponents of the policies championed by Bennett will not be dissuaded. They are just that passionate about the children, you see.
The hell of all of this is that it’s not doing the kids any good. I know my kids are going to be trading education time for time taking a standardized test. They’ll do fine, but they’d be better off if their teachers were talking to them about history or current events or triangles or just about anything. Heck, they’d be better off running around outside kicking a ball around. And, generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of evidence showing that kids are doing any better in the non-traditional schools parents theoretically get to choose after all is said and done. The 20 years or so of data we have show that voucher schools don’t perform notably better and often perform worse than traditional schools.
There are about a million kids in Indiana’s schools, but more like eight billion reasons for this education fight.