INDIANAPOLIS | The Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state agency, was established by Republican Gov. Mike Pence to integrate education and workforce training in Indiana by uniting various school and employment boards and agencies under a single umbrella.
"I realized that no one agency has the responsibility for promoting innovation across the entire spectrum of education and career preparation, from the earliest school days through new training for adults," Pence said. "It became apparent to me that we needed new ways of thinking about how to align all of the partners across the entire spectrum."
Enter CECI, whose 16 employees now manage and staff the Indiana Education Roundtable, the State Board of Education, the Indiana Career Council and the 11 regional Indiana Works Councils.
The new agency has been directed to coordinate its efforts with the Indiana Department of Education, Commission for Higher Education, Department of Workforce Development and the Indiana Charter School Board -- as well as industry and other private education partners -- "so we can more effectively serve students and adult workers," Pence said.
CECI is funded by $5.8 million that was appropriated to the agencies it oversees and is jointly led by Claire Fiddian-Green, Pence's special assistant for education innovation, and Jaclyn Dowd, Pence's special assistant for career innovation.
It is also the spark at the center of a firestorm that is tearing apart education decision-making at the state level.
Glenda Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, contends Pence created CECI to usurp her authority as state schools chief and lay the groundwork for the governor to take full control of Indiana education, likely under an appointed superintendent.
The conflict between Ritz and CECI has been most pronounced at State Board of Education meetings, where the Republican-appointed board has insisted on consulting CECI staff to verify nearly every claim made by employees of Ritz's Department of Education.
On multiple occasions this has led to Ritz's attorney and the board's CECI attorney standing side by side at the speaker's podium contradicting each other on various points of education law.
Earlier this month, Ritz used her statutory power as chairwoman to hastily adjourn a State Board of Education meeting when board members insisted CECI staff have a hand in rewriting the state's educational standards, a task Ritz claims state law assigns to her department.
"The Center for Education and Career Innovation is undermining the exceptional work done every day by the Department of Education," Ritz said. "This is causing unnecessary conflict in education, which does nothing to serve Indiana’s children."
But Tony Walker, a Gary Democrat who represents Northwest Indiana on the state education board, believes it's Ritz who is misunderstanding the role of her Department of Education.
"It's an executive department tasked basically with implementing the policies established by the State Board of Education," Walker said. "The state board is tasked with setting education policy in the state and there is no limit on who we can talk to and who we can solicit help from to work through those issues."
Walker acknowledges the board did not have its own staff under former Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican whom Ritz defeated last year.
As a result, Walker said the board was unable to independently check proposals submitted by Bennett's Department of Education -- many of which state lawmakers this year found to be flawed and have ordered the state board to redo, such as A-F grades for rating school performance.
Walker chuckles at the idea that CECI is anything more than an attempt by the governor to break down the separate "silos" of education and workforce development for the good of Hoosier students, workers and employers.
"It is in no way a shadow organization to the Department of Education," Walker said. "It doesn't take away any authority or power from the Department of Education."
CECI has been controversial from nearly the moment of its Aug. 23 creation.
Within nine minutes of Pence's announcing the new agency, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce sent reporters prepared statements praising the governor's vision.
"By enabling the state to align K-12, higher education and our workforce development resources, we will be better equipped to develop the skill sets Hoosier students need to thrive in tomorrow's economy," Bosma said.
Ritz, on the other hand, had no immediate comment because she only learned of the new agency through news reports. Pence did not consult with Ritz in setting up CECI, said Ritz spokesman Daniel Altman.
At the same time, Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, has questioned why Pence, who claims to be a "small government" conservative, would create a new layer of state bureaucracy to oversee other new other agencies Pence also has created during his 11 months in office.
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, wonders about the high salaries paid to CECI officials.
Fiddian-Green is paid $120,000 a year. That's nearly $9,000 more than Pence makes and $30,000 more than Ritz's salary. Dowd earns $110,000.
Altogether, six of the 16 CECI staffers earn more than $100,000 a year, according to the state auditor.