Education war shows the 2012 election never ended

Gov. Mike Pence talks with the media at the Indiana Republican Party elections results viewing party in Indianapolis Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The 2012 election was more than two years ago, but ballot results appear to have settled little in Indiana’s ongoing education war between Democrats and public school supporters and conservative education reformers.

Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz shocked Indiana political insiders in November 2012 by ousting Republican Tony Bennett. At the time, it appeared that her election would throw a wrench into ambitious plans started four years earlier to adopt sweeping conservative changes to Indiana’s education system.

But the election settled nothing. Instead, the fighting between the two sides moved from the campaign trail to the State Board of Education.

Gov. Mike Pence made the surprising decision last week to support removing his chief opponent, Ritz, as chairwoman of the state board. Pence, who appoints the members of the board, announced that his 2015 legislative agenda would include a proposal to have the gubernatorial appointees to the board elect a chair.

The announcement came one day after another grueling meeting of the board, where gubernatorial appointees succeeded in stripping Ritz of control over poor-performing schools and related federal grant money.

For their part, the board members have complained extensively of Ritz’s campaign-style tactics — moves they say are unsuited for governing and are indicative of someone who never stopped campaigning for office.

When controversial items shifting power from Ritz to Pence have been added to state board meetings, board members have been flooded with vitriolic emails from Indiana teachers and union members supporting Ritz.

Ritz herself has sparked anger from otherwise mild-mannered members with her demeanor at meetings. Cari Whicker, a Republican board member and teacher, said last week that Ritz spoke to her “as if I’m a child being reprimanded.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that power struggles occur in politics. And it’s not like Indiana Republicans are the only ones who find creative ways to rewrite the rules to their benefit.

Early in his first term as Maryland governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley decided he wanted to get rid of Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick — also a Democrat, but one who allied with Maryland Republicans. He floated the idea of overhauling Maryland’s State Board of Education to give him enough votes to remove Grasmick.

Grasmick had presided over a state takeover of Baltimore City schools while O’Malley, who had a famously short temper while serving as mayor of Baltimore, was pulled back from the cliff by one of the cooler heads in Maryland’s Statehouse, House Speaker Michael Busch, also a Democrat.

Two of the cooler heads in the Pence-Ritz war, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, had previously called for a detente from both sides and threatened that the Legislature would step in. But on Thursday, they announced they would side with Pence in calling for an overhaul of the state education board.

For Pence, the move is an about-face from last year, when he was fighting back against accusations from Ritz that he was engineering a power grab. At the time, a Pence spokeswoman called the idea “ridiculous” and said Pence dismissed the idea immediately when it was brought to him by then-education adviser Claire Fiddian-Green.

One year later, Pence is leading the charge to remove Ritz.

The fighting and battling will again spill over to the Indiana General Assembly, as the arena shifts to the 2015 session. From there, it is likely to move back to state board meetings and the campaign trail for 2016.

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