Political, Policy Feuds Roil Indiana’s K-12 Landscape

Indiana is the perfect setting for those interested in intense debates on education policy, struggles in governance, and disagreements over the common core curriculum. The leaders of the state are clearly defined, and the conflicts are far from boring. Last year, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who unexpectedly won in 2012, filed a lawsuit against the state board of education after they sought assistance from the Republican-controlled legislature on school accountability measures. The tensions escalated at a state board meeting in November when a new agency created by Republican Governor Mike Pence was discussed, resulting in the appointment of a mediator. Ms. Ritz, a former school media specialist, objected to a plan to remove her as head of the state board.

Currently, Indiana is on the verge of replacing the Common Core State Standards with new standards that are somewhat similar but have uncertain consequences for testing, accountability, and instruction. The situation has become so tense that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described it as a level of dysfunction he has never seen before. Although there have been some recent signs of calm and cooperation, it is nothing like the collaborative dynamic between then-Governor Mitch Daniels and then-Superintendent Tony Bennett, both Republicans, from 2009 to 2012. Gordon Hendry, a Democratic member of the state school board appointed by Governor Pence, commented, "The different people in different roles expose different weaknesses in the system."

While many states are having debates about the common core standards, Indiana has made the most progress in terms of repealing or slowing down its implementation. The state is close to adopting new draft standards that combine the common core with previous Indiana content standards. These draft standards were developed by Indiana teachers and professors from state universities as a result of a law passed last year that required a review of the common core and consideration of new standards. The state board will vote on these new standards on April 9. Ms. Ritz explained that Indiana has been teaching both sets of standards as a transition, but expressed concern about the common math standards. She emphasized that the focus is not on keeping or eliminating the common core, but on evaluating what changes should be made.

Brad Oliver, a state board member appointed by Governor Pence, expressed satisfaction with the ongoing dialogue and the clear steps that officials know they need to take. He believes that a consensus on standards is not far away. However, state legislators were prepared to officially reject the common core earlier this month. Some opponents of the common core believe that Indiana will simply adopt a modified version of the same standards. However, Republican Representative Robert Behning, the chair of the House education committee, argued that Indiana needs to move on despite his own concerns about the common core. He pointed out that the legislature has never been involved in setting standards before.

The common core is not the only issue on the agenda of policymakers in Indiana. The state’s A-F school accountability system was overhauled after it was revealed that Superintendent Bennett altered the grade of a charter school in 2012. Ms. Ritz expressed satisfaction with the changes made to include student growth and performance in the future A-F system.

Indiana voters have historically voted for different parties when electing their governor and state schools superintendent. However, the relationship between Superintendent Ritz and Governor Pence has been particularly tense. The governor created the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI) in order to improve collaboration between public schools, job training, and the workforce. However, this has resulted in a shift of power away from Superintendent Ritz’s education department towards the CECI. Both sides claim they are able to work together, with Governor Pence’s special assistant for education innovation stating that the relationship is currently very good. Nonetheless, Superintendent Ritz’s ability to change state education policy is limited, especially when it comes to the tuition-voucher program.

The president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, who supported Superintendent Ritz in the 2012 election, argues that the superintendent has faced a lot of unfair treatment from state education leaders. As Superintendent Ritz becomes more comfortable with the political machinery, she is likely to become more vocal and forceful. The creation of the CECI by Governor Pence has caused some controversy, with some questioning its necessity. Additionally, Governor Pence’s plans for an early-education voucher program have faced opposition.

Despite these challenges, some state officials believe that Indiana’s education governance environment can serve as a model for other states. The CECI’s approach to workforce development has garnered attention from other states, and Indiana welcomes the spotlight. Furthermore, the state is taking the opportunity to review its education standards and assessment system. Superintendent Ritz is prepared to have tough conversations and face the challenges ahead.


  • killiantrevino

    Killian Trevino is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog to share her knowledge and experiences with her readers. She has a strong interest in teaching and sharing her knowledge with others, and her blog is a great way to do that.