Hasty reform to oust Dem risks angering voters

(Bedford) Times-Mail

It doesn’t appear as if Indiana’s education and political leadership has ever heard of the old adage “agree to disagree.”

An ongoing battle that has become somewhat of a joke has taken place ever since Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, the only Democrat who currently holds a statewide office, took office after being elected by a majority of Hoosier voters in 2012.

Let’s say that again. Ritz beat Tony Bennett by six percentage points. At the time, many said it was a good sign of what Hoosier voters thought of the Republican-led education reforms and more specifically, Bennett.

Now, after almost two years of squabbling between Ritz and the Republican leadership, including Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP-appointed board of education, many are calling for the Indiana Legislature to eliminate the election of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by making it a gubernatorial appointment. In other words, let’s pick someone who will agree with whomever is in the governor’s office.

That idea might get more support if it seemingly wasn’t based solely on political differences. After all, Indiana is one of only 12 states that elects its state schools chief. The job elsewhere is filled by the governor or a state school board, not by the voters.

Making the position a gubernatorial appointment may not be a bad idea, except the conversation wasn’t broached when Bennett, a Republican who was backed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, was the leading face for education in Indiana.

If such a measure were to pass the Legislature, it would mean Ritz could not seek re-election in 2016.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, backs the idea, as does Senate leader David Long, R-Fort Wayne, but wisely warned of the political firestorm such a move could create if the GOP-led General Assembly would terminate the position — the only statewide office currently held by a Democrat.

Instead, Bosma suggested the Legislature may move to minimize the authority of Ritz and the state school board. “The bickering on the front page of the paper has to stop or the General Assembly will take action and it’ll probably be action nobody will like,” he noted.

We agree. The constant squabbling must stop, but it needs to come from both sides of the political aisle. No one involved in this ongoing disagreement is innocent, and both sides must concede to cooperation in order for education to move forward in Indiana.

But Republicans cannot win this fight by using their power in the House and Senate to get rid of Ritz, whom they view as the problem, by making her job a political appointment. The voters put Ritz in office, and if they don’t like the firestorm she has participated in, they can take her back out.

If state leaders want to have a meaningful conversation about changing how the position of state schools superintendent is chosen, then it must come at a different, less politically motivated time. Voters will no doubt see the ruse for what it is — a way to strip Ritz of her job. For now, it’s best to let voters decide if Ritz should maintain her position in state government.

This is one fight the General Assembly should stay out of for now.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.