In Indiana, Governors Push for More Control Over Education

Mike Pence tried first. Now Gov. Eric Holcomb is attempting to make the superintendent a gubernatorial appointment, leaving voters with little say over schools.
by | May 2017
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb wants to make the school superintendent a gubernatorial appointment. (AP)

Education is a top spending and policy priority in every state. That’s a major reason why governors want a large say on school issues. But it has led to some frustration for Indiana’s recent chief executives.

Indiana is one of about a dozen states where the top education official is elected independently. As a result, governors and state superintendents of public instruction don’t always see eye to eye. This was especially true when Vice President Mike Pence was governor and had to work with -- or more frequently against -- Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

In 2012, Ritz managed to unseat Tony Bennett, a superintendent who promoted vouchers, merit pay and charter schools. (Later, it emerged that Bennett had ordered underlings to goose the ratings of some charters, including one founded by a top donor.) Ritz represented a brake against the kind of education overhaul that Bennett, Pence and other Republicans had pursued. Pence thus sought to do an end-run around her, creating a new agency to set policy. “Legislators found themselves having to get more involved in refereeing arguments,” says Betsy Wiley, president of the Institute for Quality Education, in Indianapolis. “It was a lot of trauma and drama and politics for four years, and not a lot of support of good education policy.”

Ritz was unseated in November by Republican Jennifer McCormick. Nevertheless, Pence’s successor, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, decided it was time to revive an idea that’s been kicking around the state for decades -- making the superintendent’s job a gubernatorial appointment. A bill to do just that sailed through the state House earlier this year. However, on the same day, a related measure was narrowly defeated in the state Senate.

The bill was mismanaged, with freshman senators inadequately briefed on its importance as a priority for the governor. But there were substantive objections as well. In some states where the superintendent is appointed, members of the state board of education are elected. That gives voters some leverage in state school politics. Under the proposed Indiana model, voters would have been left with no role to play except picking a governor. “The voters of Indiana deserve some type of direct impact on the direction of education,” says Keith Gambill, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “That can’t solely be with the governor’s seat.”

This points to a perennial question in state government: What’s the best way to make sure agency heads are accountable? Electing superintendents directly gives voters a choice, but too many independent fiefdoms can leave a governor powerless to carry out a coherent agenda. Advocates for appointing superintendents say the education chief and the governor should be philosophically aligned -- rather than having them work against each other, as happened with Pence and Ritz.

That argument may still win out. Holcomb and his allies are determined to try again in the Senate. They believe tweaking the bill and mounting a renewed lobbying effort might push the bill over the top. On the other hand, some senators don’t share the governor’s views on important issues, notably vouchers and investing in pre-K, and therefore don’t want to give him what he wants in terms of overall control.

It’s one more reminder that on central concerns such as education, arriving at consensus can be much more difficult than simply rearranging the organizational chart.