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Column: Time for state education leaders to be grown-ups


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Maybe all the squabbling, infighting and backbiting among Indiana’s political leaders over the direction of education in the state is part of some master plan.

Maybe it is designed to make Hoosiers feel better about the federal government by showing them that it is, in fact, possible to be more dysfunctional than Congress.

If that is the plan, it might be working.

If that isn’t the plan — if the Indiana Board of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz instead are trying to convince Hoosiers that their children’s futures are in good hands — well, then, not so much.

Most Indiana parents by now are convinced they’d be better off putting the kids in charge.

Consider what we’ve seen since Ritz, a Democrat, upset her predecessor, Republican Tony Bennett, in the 2012 election.

Outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels and incoming Gov. Mike Pence, both Republicans, vowed they were going to ignore the election results. Pence since has followed through on that pledge, pushing his appointed board of education to ignore and thwart Ritz at every step and setting up a parallel agency to duplicate and, in some ways, supplant Ritz’s office. The board of education kept faith with Pence and conducted shadow meetings and other forms of communication that violated the spirit if not the letter of open door laws.

Finally, the board members, all of whom were appointed by Republicans, voted to strip Ritz of many of her powers as chairwoman and took steps to turn education board meetings into the equivalent of open mic night at the local comedy club.

Ritz, for her part, hasn’t exactly risen above the strife. She has withheld information from board members, made a noisy exit from a board meeting and, at one point, filed suit against the members of the board.

Then there’s the ongoing spectacle of the former superintendent, Tony Bennett. News stories that demonstrated that Bennett ordered test results altered for a school he liked made him a national joke. Most recently, he and the state ethics commission agreed to a settlement in which he paid a $5,000 fine for transgressions that in other contexts likely would have merited a prison sentence.

To call what passes for Indiana’s education leadership structure a mess is a bit like saying Hurricane Katrina was a light rain.

As it often happens in fights that become this rancorous, the two sides have become almost mirror images of each other.

Both sides say that the breakdown in communication and effectiveness is entirely the fault of the other side. Both sides claim to have monopolies on virtue and wisdom.

And this is the best part: Both sides argue that their opponents can’t possibly care about children if they disagree about the best ways to serve those kids.

That’s right. If you’re not in complete agreement with the person across the table about school choice, Common Core or teacher training, that must mean that you hate children.

Boy, with attitudes like that on both sides, it’s hard to see why our leaders aren’t able to move this dispute forward to a resolution, isn’t it?

Here’s a modest suggestion for the folks involved in this fight. Instead of blasting away at your opponents some more, try practicing accountability in addition to preaching it.

Try owning up to a mistake you or your side made rather than focusing all of your attention on the folks with whom you disagree.

The governor and the education board members could start by saying they will accept the fact that the voters were trying to tell them something when they elected Ritz and that they have not been at all sensitive to the voters’ message.

And Ritz could acknowledge that filing the suit was an error in judgment that helped upgrade a political dispute into all-out war.

Accepting responsibility for a mistake is both the right thing to do and good politics.

My guess is that Hoosiers are waiting to see who is going to be the adult in this dispute, and they likely will reward that person with support.

Any idiot can start or escalate a fight. It takes a leader, or at least a grown-up, to end one.

Let’s hope, for the sake of the children both sides say they care about, that grown-up shows

up soon.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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