Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

November 16, 2013

Ritz's power grab paranoia

By Mike O'Brien
Hendricks County Flyer

---- — If ever the case was made for appointing rather than electing the Superintendent of Public Instruction, our current superintendent is making it.

But to be clear to the black helicopter teachers unionists, she’s the only one talking about it. Republicans bailed on the idea in 2005 and doubled down seconds after Tony Bennett lost his re-election campaign.

But the debate of the past is instructive on how we got to where we’re at today, which is to say in education reform hell, and where we’re going in terms of who actually controls the education agenda.

Some have suggested that both the State Board of Education and Superintendent Glenda Ritz are to blame for the current war over who sets the agenda. Ritz’s response to such a suggestion was frantic, accusing Gov. Mike Pence of not just a power grab, but a complete takeover of education policy. She also disputed the assertion that all of this fighting is hurting schools.

So then, I guess it’s helping. You’re welcome, kids. And don’t worry, more fighting and therefore help is on the way.

This power grab paranoia stems from the non-stop campaign at Ritz’s Indiana Department of Education to convince teachers and parents that Ritz is some powerless victim of the vast right wing. So let’s dwell on that for a minute. There seems to be a lingering impression that the Superintendent of Public Instruction is invested with some great constitutional power that has now been systematically removed by Republicans. This widespread belief plays itself out on Facebook pages across the state and deserves some clarification and perspective. Let’s be clear: whatever power is perceived to have rested in the superintendent’s office is not granted by law but is a byproduct of how Tony Bennett led the office and how he was supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Never has a superintendent in Indiana been so empowered to carry the message and education agenda of the legislative and executive branches. It was a unique alignment of policy and politics that made it happen, and Tony was the right guy to pick big fights on behalf of elected officials who agreed with the direction the state should go.

That rarely happens, even when the same party is in power, and it’s unlikely to happen again. Mitch and Tony are gone and the superintendent has returned to what it always was: an administrative office that basically coordinates education policy among school districts. Someone get Sue Ellen Reed on the phone. She’ll tell you all about it.

Lost to history is that the debate over appointing the Superintendent of Public Instruction was a bipartisan idea. In 2004, both Joe Kernan and Mitch Daniels promised that if elected they would pursue legislation to make the position one appointed by the governor.

Indiana is one of few states that does not appoint our schools chief and if the governor already has significant influence over K-12 education policy, not to mention higher ed policy, then why wouldn’t we appoint that position and make it non-partisan? The answer: some people enjoy the political show that results from making the position a toxic political office that can’t get anything accomplished (see: union, teachers). I’m not one of those people.

You’ll recall that in 2004, then-Superintendent Sue Ellen Reed was finishing her third term and had just been elected to her fourth. Mitch Daniels was elected governor and he set out to pass this legislation. I was a member of Gov. Daniels’ legislative team and was involved in crafting the proposal. One of the first questions we addressed was what to do about Dr. Reed. She was well liked by Republicans and some Democrats, but she was perceived as ill-equipped to take on unions and carry major education reform initiatives and there was a desire to replace her with a more aggressive superintendent.

A deal was struck to allow Dr. Reed to finish out her term, which was appropriate since voters had just elected her to another one, and when the office was up again in 2008, it would be an appointed position. Senate Bill 517 was introduced by then-State Senator Theresa Lubbers, who now leads the Commission for Higher Education (which is an appointed position).

But there was a problem: Sen. Bob Garton, the longest tenured state senate president in American history, wanted to put it off for another day. The governor’s agenda was already heavy and adding this would pick a fight in the House.

The teachers unions wanted Reed, who was a sympathizer, and the union still controlled the House Democrat caucus and a couple of Republican members in tight districts who couldn’t go with the governor on this, which mattered then since Republicans held a slim 52-48 majority.

Garton made the case that we had four years to accomplish this and after bigger priorities were achieved, we could move on to the matter of making the superintendent appointed. Talk about your all-time backfires.

Led by then-Minority Leader Pat Bauer, the Democrats walked out on the 2005 session in an attempt to kill the governor’s agenda (the first in a long series of Bauer-Daniels slugfests). We got most of it back by amending the governor’s proposals into House bills that had already passed over to the Senate, but the political environment had turned noxious and we had to take what we could get.

SB 517 died in committee without a hearing.

By the 2006 session, Major Moves was a priority over everything else even the governor’s own re-election and no appointment bill was considered. Republicans lost the majority in the House in 2006 and didn’t get it back until ‘10.

By then, Tony Bennett was being praised as one of the most aggressive reformers in America, so no one was going to mess with a good thing.

In hindsight, 2011 was the year to make the position appointed. We were 18 months from electing the superintendent and Republicans controlled the House and Senate and the governor was term-limited. Plus, the presidential election, and Mitch Daniels’ potential run, was dominating political conversation.

Heck, even some Democrats supported some of the reforms being championed by Bennett, most notably President Barack Obama.

The legislature could have made the SPI an appointed position for 2012 then and no one but Ritz’s communication manager, David Galvin, would have cared.

For all of the current paranoia over the alleged abuse of Ritz and a secret plan to remove her from office, it’s worth remembering that the closest Indiana has ever come to having an appointed superintendent was a bill introduced nine years ago that died in the first chamber without a committee hearing at a time when Republicans controlled the legislature, the governor’s office, and the superintendent’s office.

So let’s all calm down and get back to work.

Mike O'Brien is a veteran of Republican campaigns, a former staffer for Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the chairman of the Hendricks County Republican Party. He can be reached at mikeohendrickscountygop.com.