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home : opinion : letters to the editor April 28, 2016

8/14/2014 11:37:00 AM
Battle Over Education

Editor, Times-Union:
The seemingly endless battle between Gov. Pence and Superintendent of Public Instruction Ritz continues. The issues of conflict are too numerous to list here but the battles are severe, with students and taxpayers being the losers. Some have suggested that the superintendent of public instruction should become an office appointed by the governor. While change clearly is in order, we need to be careful about that move.
This isn’t the first time considerations have been proposed to make the office appointed rather than elected. One only has to go back to the first term of Gov. Evan Bayh to find serious conflict between the two offices. Dr. H. Dean Evans, perhaps the most highly regarded school superintendent in Indiana at the time, had been selected by Governor Robert Orr to complete the term vacated by Dr. Negley. Orr and Evans then developed the A+ program that included Primetime (a program to reduce class size) and increased state testing to monitor student achievement. Additional funding was included along with added requirements regarding school attendance, etc. The very popular program was well received and enjoyed broad support.
With the election of a new governor, Bayh, came the political need and/or desire to place his stamp on the Department of Education. The conflict became significant and Evans chose to move to another leadership position. The A+ program was no longer a priority. Dr. Suellen Reed, superintendent of Rush County Schools, became the new Republican candidate. She went on to win numerous terms and always received the highest number of votes among Republican state office-seekers. During the Bayh, Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan years, various approaches were used to impose the will of the governor’s office on the Department of Education.
The Education Roundtable, co-chaired by the governor and Dr. Reed, served as the melting pot for education change.  O’Bannon and Kernan, both gentlemen of integrity, worked well with Dr. Reed and public school students were well served. The commissioner of higher education also became very active in advocating higher expectations and accountability for Indiana students and schools. PL 221 was a product of their joint cooperation and was passed into law in 1999. Absent the subsequent federal No Child Left Behind, Indiana would have been well served by the 1999 statute.
Reports that come my way regarding the present mess paint a different picture. The professional manners of O’Bannon and Kernan vanished. Big-time politics involving huge sums of campaign contributions drive decisions and now carry the day. And most decisions seem made with one eye on opportunities for higher office in Washington, other states or higher education.  The latest publishing of the Pence-driven critique of Ritz’s attempt to seek continuation of a Bennett-initiated waiver clearly undercuts Ritz with the feds.
As has been evident for many years dating back to the Orr/Evans/Bayh period, the desire for a new governor to place his or her stamp on public education happens.
Roger Thornton
Bluffton





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