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May 8, 2013

BRADNER: Appointments will be instructive on Pence’s education stand

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence’s first chance to make a lasting mark on Indiana’s approach to education policy will come next month, when he appoints new members of a key policymaking panel.

He hasn’t said much about his plans for the State Board of Education.

“We’ve got some appointments that come up in June and we’re going to be evaluating those appointments at that time,” the new Republican governor said at a news conference last week.

But he’ll have key decisions to make, and how he handles them will be the first clear indications of whether and how the new governor’s approach to education issues differs from his predecessor’s views.

The board of education currently is made up of members appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels — a champion of the reforms advanced by ousted Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

Its frustration with Pence, lawmakers and others who are now seeking to reverse the actions the board took in recent years was aired publicly at a meeting last week.

Board members’ criticism was mostly directed at lawmakers’ decision — with Pence’s support — to pause Indiana’s implementation of the “Common Core” educational standards that were developed by a coalition of states and favored by President Barack Obama.

“I very much believe that was a solution without a problem,” said Tony Walker, a board member from Gary. “The whole idea that, somehow, this board had not done a comprehensive evaluation of the Common Core standards prior to adopting them is false.”

For his part, Pence, who voted against the federal No Child Left Behind law, hasn’t taken much of a stand on Common Core State Standards.

After all, it’s a tricky issue for him. Tea partyers see it as a federal initiative being forced down states’ throats, while advocates — in many cases, Republicans aligned with Daniels and Bennett — point out that states actually developed the Common Core standards and Indiana approved it as part of its recent education reform push.

“We’re going to give common Core a fair look and a serious look. But I don’t come at it with any preconceived notion for or against,” Pence said last week. “My only bias is that we’re going to do education the Indiana way. We’re going to set our curriculum in Indiana for Indiana.”

That line — “the Indiana way” — comes with just about the same level of detail as the line Pence loved to use on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address to explain his approach to education issues.

“There’s nothing that ails our schools that can’t be fixed by giving parents more choices and teachers more freedom to teach,” he has said often.

It sounds good, but it means little. As a result, Pence remains largely a blank slate when it comes to education issues.

He has said he supports expanding Indiana’s private school voucher program, and has expressed a desire to back any school choice initiatives that give parents more options.

However, there was no serious push during this year’s legislative session to eliminate income guidelines that restrict vouchers to lower- and middle-class families. A proposal to do away with the requirement that students spend at least one year in a public school before qualifying ultimately was dropped from the final measure.

The broad outline of Pence’s approach to education — supporting school choice initiatives and seeking to decentralize control over schools’ operation — is evident.

The nitty-gritty details, though, largely will be worked out by members of the State Board of Education.

That’s why his upcoming appointments are so crucial.

— Eric Bradner is the statehouse bureau reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press.

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