---- — It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Democratic schools Super-intendent Glenda Ritz is pro-mising greater transpar-ency as she begins work on a new school grading formula.
Even before it was uncovered that her predecessor, former Republican schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, had changed the grading formula to ensure a top GOP donor’s charter school received an A, Ritz said her administration would work in the open. But in the wake of Bennett’s grade-changing scandal, that promise is even more important.
One of her first chances to make good on that guarantee will be a string of meetings for the 17-member panel making recommendations on the new grading formula. They will be working at a breakneck pace, by Statehouse standards, to get their recommendations to the State Board of Education by Nov. 1.
Ritz and the panel’s other co-chairman, West Allen County School Superintendent Steven Yager, both said last week they plan to hold “fair and transparent” meetings.
“That’s our ultimate goal, to make sure we have a transparent system that patrons and teachers, staff members, taxpayers, business folks can read and understand and make sense of,” Yager said shortly before walking into the first meeting of the group.
The grades themselves are important in determining official moves, like how much money a school gets from the state. They also have less tangible impacts, affecting things like where families decide to buy homes. There already exists surface-level openness for the grades, in the form of glossy one-pagers from the Department of Education showing each school’s grade.
But the past month or so has shown that “how the sausage is made” — shorthand for the gnashing of politics in creating policy, almost as much to divert attention from important decisions — is important.
Indiana leaders have a mixed record on showing the public how their money is being spent. The good includes streaming online legislative hearings and archived webcasts, easily searchable legislation and contracts and many other databases of public information.
But the bad includes some high-level incidents like a meeting of the Purdue Board of Trustees at Chicago O’Hare International Airport last year to select their new president. The Journal & Courier in Lafayette petitioned the state’s public access counselor for details on the meeting location at the airport but was told that simply knowing it’s somewhere in one of the world’s largest airports should suffice.
The pair of veteran Statehouse analysts hired to determine how Bennett and his team had changed the grading formula delivered a series of findings to lawmakers earlier this month. They found neither vindication nor condemnation for the former schools chief, although they described deep concerns about the transparency with which the last formula was written.
The answer, said John Grew and Bill Sheldrake, needed to be actual transparency.
“The process of development of a new system should be based on: 1. Extensive involvement by experts and practitioners from the education community. 2. Transparency in all decision-making by the [State Board of Education] and [Indiana Department of Education] throughout the development process and final adoption of the revised rule,” the authors wrote.
So Ritz and the other leaders who will craft these new rules have profusely guaranteed transparency.
Any skepticism from the public could be easily understood: Bennett spent his four years in office promising the creation of his formula would be “fair, transparent and easy to understand.” Even before the grade-changing scandal, local education leaders had been carping that the creation of the grading formula had met none of those promises.
The publication of Bennett’s emails only showed exactly what they had been missing.
With Bennett out of the superintendent’s office, the responsibility for openness is now on Ritz. The fallout from Bennett raised the bar for her, but that’s not saying it will be too high to clear.
Tom LoBianco covers Indiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow him at twitter.com/tomlobianco.