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Change at the top

With state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s announcement she won’t seek re-election in 2020, it’s inevitable the legislature will strip voters of their authority to choose the Indiana schools’ chief sooner rather than later. Even Democratic leaders have acknowledged there is no reason to wait until 2025, when McCormick’s second term might have ended.

But why stop at making the state superintendent an appointed office, asks Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. Why not eliminate the Indiana State Board of Education?

“Somebody has to be responsible for education,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t believe the State Board of Education has succeeded in its responsibility. They are not professionals. They are not full-time. They create a separate little bureaucracy that somehow monitors the Department of Education and the superintendent of public instruction.”

DeLaney’s House Bill 1147 would eliminate the board effective July 1. Eight members of the board are appointed by the governor, and one each by the House and Senate leaders. The 11th member is the Republican state superintendent, who also announced last year she would no longer chair the board. As with her Democratic predecessor, McCormick often found her policies at odds with the appointed state board members, whose authority was quietly expanded as a check on the elected state superintendent’s.

But won’t elimination of the State Board of Education leave Hoosiers with even less of a voice in school matters?

“I understand the idea is radical,” DeLaney said. “But the idea is to get rid of the layers and get down to who is responsible. The issue is that we don’t seem to trust our school boards – ‘we won’t give you more money because we don’t like the way you spend it.’ The arrogance of it overwhelms.

“I’ve read our (state) constitution over and over. It calls for a ‘general and uniform system’ of schools. But what we’ve got now is this vast range of systems with public schools, charters, vouchers. We are so far away from the constitutional mandate, it’s mind-boggling,” said the Indianapolis attorney. “I’m just trying to get the responsibility focused.”

McCormick agreed that a change is needed.

“As I’ve said in the past, Indiana’s governance structure is complicated and creates unnecessary challenges,” she wrote Tuesday in an email. “With Speaker Bosma already calling for a bill to eliminate the election of Indiana’s State Superintendent position, this is an opportunity to address the challenges of that structure.”

The General Assembly – in its 2008 property tax reform package – took over a larger share of local school funding responsibility so that education spending makes up half the state’s budget, but neither the governor nor lawmakers spend half their time on education, DeLaney said. His bill, which he acknowledges will likely never be called for a hearing, is a way to make the legislature and governor accountable for schools.

Regrettably, Hoosiers are likely to have less voice in how education dollars are spent after next year, but accountability will be just as diffused, with the General Assembly, governor, an appointed superintendent and appointed state board enacting education policies.

Both House and Senate versions of the bill to amend the date on which the office of the state superintendent is abolished have been filed. Speaker of the House Brian Bosma is personally carrying HB 1005; Sen. Jeff Raatz is sponsor of the companion SB 275. Fiscal notes for each bill suggest the salary of the appointed secretary of education is likely to increase. McCormick is paid $99,146 a year, while the average salary of state agency directors is $130,000.

But look for the cost to be much higher. Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers earns $192,560. Blair Milo, secretary of career connections and talent, earns $171,500 a year. As Bosma and other House Republicans insist Indiana teachers could earn more if their local administrators earned less, they are looking to dramatically boost pay for the state’s top school administrator.

The bottom line? Indiana voters and taxpayers soon will pay more for a school leader they will not choose. DeLaney’s proposal to abolish the State Board of Education is radical, but it rightly calls out the General Assembly and the administration for the authority they claim and the responsibility they have failed to accept.

This editorial orinigally appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.