INDIANAPOLIS — A new state agency will try to make public education better meet the needs of employers, Gov. Mike Pence said Friday, a move Indiana's top public education official said was never mentioned to her.
Pence signed an executive order Friday forming the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which he said will work to align education and career and workforce training in order to better prepare students for future careers and provide employers with skilled workers.
"Today, one in six people in Indiana lack a high school diploma or equivalency. One in three lack post-secondary skills, which are increasingly in demand. And our state's unemployment hovers at a stubborn 8 percent-plus while employers tell us good paying jobs are going unfilled," Pence said in a statement.
He said the Center would focus primarily on improving math and reading skills in elementary school, boosting graduation rates and improving the quality of the workforce.
But the announcement also brought political turf wars over education policy to the surface again.
A spokesman for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who defeated Republican Tony Bennett last year, said Pence never told her that he was considering creating a new public education agency, even in a meeting two days before the announcement.
Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman said Ritz found out about the new agency in news coverage.
"Hoosiers students would be better off if the Governor would work with her, rather than around her on this vital issue," Altman's statement said.
Pence's office, however, denied shutting Ritz out of the discussion. In a statement, it said Pence told Ritz earlier this week that he was considering reorganizing a number of executive agencies.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce backed Pence even before Ritz raised the issue.
"The ultimate responsibility for improving our education and workforce training systems rests with our state's chief executive. Governor Pence has accepted that responsibility and is putting in place the leadership that will be needed for coming years," the Chamber said in a statement.
Much of the control over Indiana education policy ultimately rests with the Legislature. In recent years, a shift toward vouchers and similar conservative-backed changes has triggered political debates but remained largely intact.
The new agency drew a mixed reaction from some key lawmakers. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said aligning education from kindergarten through higher education with workforce development would help students develop the necessary job skills.
But Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement that the new Center simply added another layer of bureaucracy to state government and duplicated efforts already handled by the Department of Education. He also said it would distance teachers, parents and local school boards from education policy.
"Creating another government agency does nothing to address the state's unemployment and surely does nothing to improve educational outcomes for Hoosier students," Lanane said.