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Indiana education war's accidental warriors

You almost have to feel sorry for the members of the Indiana State Board of Education who humbly accepted appointments to help the state and its students and now find themselves as plaintiffs in a lawsuit.

No, not Daniel Elsener, the Marian University president and former Christel DeHaan Family Foundation director. It's clear that he's motivated by his own self-interest.

But the others, particularly those newly appointed, must secretly be wondering what they've gotten themselves into. Even Andrea Neal, an Indiana Policy Review contributor, seems to be flabbergasted to be caught in a political maelstrom, although it would seem a former journalist wouldn't be so naive.

But political appointments have a way of making people accept explanations that appear ludicrous to everyone else. How else to explain why members are now asking state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to "work in a collaborative manner" and drop her lawsuit?

Where's the collaboration in that?

Ritz, who statutorily serves as chairman of the board, traveled to China and the rest of the board usurped her authority. Collaboration requires parties on both sides working toward a common goal. Whether they realize it or not, the board members are working at odds with Ritz.

Anyone familiar with statewide boards and commissions can see that the SBOE members are the pawns in this political game. They take direction from a shadow agency created by Gov. Mike Pence to undermine Ritz. The new agency's authority comes only from Pence, but board members haven't shown the courage to question it, let alone to reject it.

The A-F grades at the root of the current battle are entirely a creation of the faux school reform movement -- a tool to promote private-school vouchers and to hand control of public schools to private turnaround operators.

There's never been a public clamor for school letter grades, and the grade-fixing scheme that caught up with former Superintendent Tony Bennett surely has destroyed any public confidence in the current grading formula. That House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long want the state board to rush through letter grades based on a discredited formula puts to rest any doubt they are interested in a fair system.

Yes, you do have to feel sorry for some of the state board members. But you also have to wonder if their status as gubernatorial appointees hasn't clouded their judgment. At the very least, it seems to have distorted their understanding of collaboration.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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