Bill that would make state school superintendent an appointed position gets new life in Senate

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INDIANAPOLIS — An effort to make the Indiana schools chief an appointed position — a top priority for Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb — got new life Monday despite procedural concerns raised by Democrats.

The fate of the initiative was put in doubt earlier this session when the Senate unexpectedly rejected their chamber’s version of the bill 23-26. A legislative panel’s vote Monday to approve a House version, authored by Speaker Brian Bosma, sets up the issue’s return to the chamber, even amid challenges from Democratic members.

A Senate rule stipulating that 26 or more “no” votes means similar language cannot be considered again that session, according to some Democrats, meant Bosma’s proposal should not have been considered by the Senate panel.

Their objection was overruled by Republican Senate leader David Long, who said changes made to the House bill to delay the legislation’s effective date and add requirements for the appointed schools chief rendered it different enough to allow it to advance.

Still, the amended bill could face a challenge in the chamber, where 17 Republicans joined Democrats in February to oppose the Senate’s version.

Bosma’s proposal gives the governor’s office authority to appoint the head of the Department of Education. Supporters argue it would streamline the system for voters, as they would then have one person — the governor — to hold accountable on schools.

To opponents, the bill would strip power from voters. Adding education to the issues voters weigh in considering a gubernatorial vote would water down the issue, said Joel Hand, lobbyist for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

“We believe that you should continue to listen to Hoosier voters. Do not disenfranchise us, do not take away from us this one power that we have, to have a voice directly on education issues,” Hand said.

The proposal comes after four years of conflict involving Democratic former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz, then-Gov. Mike Pence and Republican leaders in the Legislature. They clashed over the state’s grading system for schools, the use of private school vouchers and the state takeover of poorly performing schools, among other things.

Bosma maintains his measure has no partisan basis, as the idea has been supported by people on both sides of the aisle over the years.

“This is not a proper office for a check-and-balance on school policy,” he said. “This is a proper office to administer and superintend the department and policies established by the General Assembly and the State Board of Education.”

The amendment changes the date the law would go into effect from 2021 to 2025 and requires the schools chief to have lived in Indiana for at least two years and earned an advanced degree. It also says the chief must either be employed as a teacher, principal or superintendent at the time of selection, or have worked in one of those positions or as an “executive in the field of education” for at least five years.

Bosma said it remains to be seen whether the Senate’s changes will be palatable to House members. He said he had hoped the changes wouldn’t have to be made but he understood the Senate rule.