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General Assembly

School voucher oversight may change

GOP-led House panel’s bill strips Ritz’s responsibility

– Indiana’s new Democratic state schools superintendent would no longer oversee the private school voucher program that she has opposed under a proposal approved Tuesday by a Republican-controlled legislative committee.

The House Education Committee voted 7-4 along party lines to endorse the bill that would move the handling of applications for the vouchers and distribution of the money to the state’s Office of Management and Budget, which reports to Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

The vote sparked quick criticism from Democrats, who accused Republicans of playing politics with schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz. The GOP controls the General Assembly, the governor’s office and all other elected executive offices.

“We have one lone Democrat serving in this entire Statehouse and it just happens to be Superintendent Glenda Ritz,” said Democratic Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh of Crown Point, who charged the measure challenged Ritz’s integrity and capabilities. “This is very political.”

The proposal was authored by committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who introduced the bill by citing Ritz’s involvement in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program before her election last fall.

“She does not believe public dollars should go to private schools,” said Behning, a leading sponsor of the state voucher law adopted in 2011. “She’s said that many times, pre-election and postelection.”

Committee Democrats and a top aide to Ritz said she hasn’t done anything to interfere with the voucher program since she took office Jan. 14.

“We believe that it is an unnecessary taking away of a power of the superintendent at a time when she has not even had the chance, really, to settle into her job,” said John Barnes, Ritz’s legislative liaison.

Ritz, a former suburban Indianapolis school librarian, won election last year with a grass-roots campaign fueled by teacher anger over education changes Bennett pushed.

She was a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the voucher program but withdrew after she won election. The state Supreme Court heard arguments in that case in late November but hasn’t yet ruled.

Behning also questioned why the Department of Education hadn’t opened the voucher application period for parents in February as former Republican Superintendent Tony Bennett had done.

Leaders of some private schools told the committee the Department of Education’s decision to accept voucher applications in February last year helped parents decide early whether to enroll their children.

Barnes attributed delays to the recent transition in leadership and said the agency hoped to begin accepting voucher applications soon.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said Tuesday he would consider holding a hearing on the voucher oversight proposal if it clears the House. He had previously declined to take action on any Senate bills that would shift responsibilities away from Ritz.

Kruse said he hasn’t heard any complaints about how the Education Department is handling the voucher program.