What Indiana provides is an example of what happens when the political process completely overwhelms educational concerns. If there is anyone in the Indiana state capitol more worried about education students than in political maneuvering and political posturing, it's not immediately evident who that person might be.
The current marquee conflagration of the moment is the announcement of a new Big Standardized Test that will take twelve hours to complete. This announcement has triggered a veritable stampede from responsibility, as every elected official in Indianapolis tries to put some air space between themselves and this testing disaster. And it brings up some of the underlying issues of the moment in Indiana.
Currently, all roads lead to Glenda Ritz.
Back before the fall of 2012, Indiana had become a reformster playground. They'd made early strides solving the puzzle of how to turn an entire urban school district over to privatizers, and they loved them some Common Core, too. Tony Bennett, buddy of Jeb Bush and big-time Chief for Change, was running the state's education department just the way reformsters thought it should be done. And then came the 2012 election.
Bennett was the public face of Indiana education reform. He dumped a ton of money into the race. And he lost. Not just lost, but looooooooosssssssssst!!! As is frequently noted, Glenda Ritz was elected Superintendent for Public Instruction with more votes than Governor Mike Pence. I like this account of the fallout by Joy Resmovits mostly because it includes a quote from Mike Petrilli that I think captures well the reaction of reformsters when Bennett lost.
"Shit shit shit shit shit," he said. "You can quote me on that."
After Ritz became a Democrat education in a GOP administration, Republican politicians decided that given her overwhelming electoral victory, they'd better just suck it up and find a way to honor the will of the people by working productively with her to fashion bi-partisan educational policies that put the needs of Indiana's students ahead of political gamesmanship. Ha! Just kidding. The GOP started using every trick they could think of to strip Ritz of her power.
As Scott Elliot tells it in this piece at Chalkbeat, things actually started out okay, with Ritz and the Pence administration carving out some useful compromises. Elliot marks the start of open warfare at Bennettgate-- the release of emails showing that Tony Bennett had gamed the less-than-awesome Indiana school grading system to favor certain charter operators.
Certainly Ritz and pence have different ideas about how to operate an education system. Mike Pence particularly loves charters-- so much so that he has taken the unusual move of proposing that charter schools be paid $1,500 more per student than public schools (so forget all about that charters-are-cheaper business).
Indiana has also created a complicated relationship with the Common Core, legislating a withdrawal from the Core, but one that required the state to do it without losing their federal
The Indiana GOP has been trying to separate Ritz from any power. They cite any number of complaints about her work style and competence (the GOP president of the Senate famously commented "In all fairness, Superintendent Ritz was a librarian, okay?") and most of the complaints smell like nothing but political posturing.
It's understandable that the state Board of Education would be a cantankerous group. Consider this op-ed piece from Gordon Hendry, newest member of the board, Democrat, attorney, business exec, and director of economic development under former Indianapolis mayor and current charter profiteer Bart Peterson. Hendry opens with, "To me, education policy is economic policy" (pro tip, Mr. Hendry-- education policy is education policy). After castigating Ritz for not running pleasant, orderly meetings (because her job is, apparently, to make alleged grownups behave like actual grownups), Hendry works up to this:
As a Democrat, I don't know why the superintendent insists on creating conflict where rational debate should instead exist.
That just sets off the bovine fecal detector into loud whoops. First, we've got an accusation buried as an assumption (she's the one creating conflict). Combine that with playing the feigned ignorance card-- I just have no idea why she could be so touchy! Really, dude? I'm all the way over here in Pennsylvania, and I can tell why she might be involved in some crankypants activity. I'm pretty sure winning an election and being forced to work with people who dismiss you and try to cut you out of power-- I'm pretty sure that would put someone in a bad mood. So I can understand finding her ideas obnoxious and disagreeing with how she runs a meeting, but when you claim her point of view is incomprehensible, that tells me way more about you than about her.
Most of the statements I read coming out of Indiana are like that-- they carry a screaming barely-subtext of "I am just stringing words together in a way that I've calculated might bring political advantage, but I am paying no real attention to what they actual mean to real humans."
I have no idea how good at her job Glenda Ritz actually is, but the political statement represented by her landslide election seems clear enough, and it's a little astonishing that Indiana's leaders are so hell bent on thwarting the will of the electorate. But damned if the legislature isn't trying to strip her of chairmanship of the Board of Education.
Meanwhile, the fat-free Twinkie standards have spawned some massive tumor of a test, coming in at an advertised length of twelve hours which breaks down to A) weeks of wasted classroom time and B) at least six hours worth of frustrated and bored students making random marks which of course gets Indiana C) results even more meaningless than the usual standardized test results although D) McGraw-Hill will still make a mountain of money for producing it. Whose fault is that? Tom LoBianco seems close to the answer when he says, basically, everyone. (Although Pence has offered a gubernatorial edict that the test be cut to six hours, so, I don't know- just do every other page, kids? Not sure exactly how one cuts a test in half in about a week, but perhaps Indiana is a land of miracles.*) But it's hard for me not see Ritz and Indiana schools as the victims of a system so clogged and choked with political asshattery that it may well be impossible to get anything done that actually benefits the students of Indiana.
UPDATE: On February 11, the Senate Education Committee gave the okay to a bill that would exempt voucher schools from taking the same assessment as public schools. In fact, the voucher schools can just go ahead and create a test of their own. It is remarkable that the State of Indiana has not just closed all public schools, dumped all the education money in a giant Scrooge McDuck sized vault, and sold tickets to just go in a dive around in it.
There's going to be a rally at the Statehouse on Monday, February 16th. If I were an Indiana taxpayer-- hell if I were a live human who lived considerably closer-- I would be there. This is a state that really hates its public schools.
* Edit-- I somehow lost the sentence about the shortening of the test in posting. I've since put the parenthetical point back.