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New proposal allows Ritz to remain education board leader, gives board authority over ISTEP

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INDIANAPOLIS — Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz would remain the leader of the State Board of Education for longer than previously expected under a new plan lawmakers proposed Monday.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence and GOP lawmakers have long pushed for allowing the board to select any of its members as chairman, a move that likely would oust Ritz as chairman and end a decades-old law that makes the elected state superintendent the board's leader.

Supporters say the change in leadership addresses well-known dysfunction between Ritz and other board members whom Pence currently appoints.

As lawmakers approach the legislative session's adjournment deadline of Wednesday, Senate Republicans unveiled their plan to rework the State Board of Education. The proposal would still allow the board members to choose their own leader, but not until after the 2016 election, allowing Ritz to finish out her first term in office. Previous versions would have required the change to take effect as early as this summer.

Bill sponsor Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, said the change is a negotiation with opponents who have argued that the measure would disenfranchise voters who elected Ritz in 2012.

"This has been a work in progress from day one," he said. "We think this is a good compromise."

The plan would shrink the board from 11 members to nine: the superintendent, six appointments by the governor and one appointment each from the House speaker and Senate president pro tem.

Holdman said the change in size will increase efficiency and help hold board members accountable for their responsibilities.

The plan also would give the board new authority over the ISTEP standardized test for students, which is currently controlled by the Indiana Department of Education.

John Barnes, legislative affairs director for the education department, said putting two different entities in charge of a program that impacts 400,000 students each year is a big mistake.

With ISTEP, "you've got to be able to make snap decisions," he said. "There isn't time for two different entities to consult about what's going on."

Barnes also expressed concerns about putting volunteer board members in charge of a program that takes experts in student assessments to implement and control.

Another new provision would specify the Board of Education as a second state education authority in order to receive some data the U.S. Department of Education following complaints from some board members about not receiving such information in a timely manner.

Both the House and Senate have approved versions of the bill, but lawmakers face a Wednesday deadline to reach a final agreement.

House Republicans backed leaving all the current positions in place while adding one appointment each for the House and Senate leaders.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma didn't immediately embrace the new proposal on Monday.

"We're still working on that one," he said.

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