Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How 'Local Control' Became Pivotal Issue For Ritz In Bid To Unseat Tony Bennett

Jimmy Jenkins / Indiana Public Media

Democrat Glenda Ritz celebrates her victory in the race for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction. She unseated incumbent Republican Tony Bennett in the night's most stunning upset.

Cindi Pastore had always sparred on Facebook with an old friend whose politics were decidedly more conservative than hers. The discussions were spirited and good-natured, but she never had luck much changing his mind.

That is, until Pastore — a “semi-retired” special education teacher — brought up the race for state superintendent. It took a lot of back-and-forth, but she ultimately convinced this “die-hard Republican” friend to vote for Democrat Glenda Ritz.

“I got him to split his ticket for the first time in his entire life. I was real proud of that,” Pastore says.

How? She convinced him Republican incumbent Tony Bennett‘s policies were increasingly tying the hands of local school boards — or, in education parlance, undermining “local control.” Other Ritz supporters made similar arguments, Pastore says.

“That was a very smart thing,” Pastore concluded. “That was something we could use that people would see.”

Though Tuesday’s result is being framed as a referendum on Bennett’s school choice and accountability policies, Pastore’s account squares with poll numbers suggesting conservative voters responded to arguments that school boards should have control over their own policies.

An especially effective talking point for Ritz’s supporters? The argument that the Common Core represents federal meddling in local education policy.

(This would explain the map we posted earlier today showing Bennett’s support had eroded most in deep red counties and the right-leaning Indianapolis suburbs.)

The Common Core & Local Control

Bennett emphasizes local control when discussing his education policies. For instance, he supported the creation of a statewide teacher evaluation mandate. But Bennett’s system allowed school districts to locally craft their rubrics and systems for rating educators.

But even Bennett acknowledged Wednesday his ardent support for the Common Core State Standards — national academic standards being implemented in Indiana and most other states — undercut his re-election bid.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

State superintendent Tony Bennett delivers his concession speech at Lucas Oil Stadium Tuesday evening.

“She did a very good job of appealing to the strong conservative base who had problems with the Common Core. So that’s another issue obviously,” he told State EdWatch.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess explains further:

[There's] frustration among Tea Party conservatives that Bennett was championing an initiative that they’ve come to see as an Obama administration initiative (with its own derogatory name, “Obamacore”). One needs only to peruse conservative publications or e-mail blasts to realize how deeply this view has taken hold…

Bennett himself repeatedly expressed that exact concern and tried to tell the administration to please back the hell off; they didn’t listen. Because Bennett thinks the Common Core is the right thing to do, he held fast nonetheless — and that drew the ire of onetime conservative backers, who’ve now lashed out in frustration.

If Hoosiers wanted Glenda Ritz rather than Bennett, that’s cool. But Bennett would have beaten Ritz solidly (despite her staunch support from teacher unions eager to take him out) if the basketball-coaching, folksy, well-funded, native son had merely run as well as Romney. And exit polling and local accounts suggest that the reason he didn’t can pretty much be chalked up to conservative angst over the Common Core. Intentionally or not, the Obama administration has politicized the Common Core and, in so doing, is making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it. And, trust me, a lot of GOP state school board members, education committee members, and state chiefs are aware of what happened to Bennett.

Bennett By Air, Ritz On The Ground

Bennett’s huge war chest allowed the state superintendent’s campaign to air television ads through the months of September and October.

But Cindi Pastore’s account also demonstrates how the Ritz campaign was able to mount such an effective ground game, mobilizing teachers through social media — and old-fashioned personal networking.

“Face-to-face, I probably had 50 conversations over the course of the last year, at least,” Pastore remembers. “I came up with about 15 [people] that I know for certain that I was the factor” in convincing them to vote for Ritz, she says.

(You might remember Pastore, by the way, from a story we did earlier this year about teacher licensure rules.)

Ritz’s campaign also benefited from $173,000 in contributions from the political arm of the state’s largest teachers union. The Indiana State Teachers Association also offered to help mobilize teachers through its local chapters on Ritz’s behalf.

But Pastore says press accounts are overplaying unions’ impact on the race. She was a union member when she was a full-time special education teacher in northeast Indiana, and says she’s proud of that fact. But she says she tried to distance herself from the union when discussing Ritz’s campaign.

“I tried very deliberately not to brign the union into it,” Pastore says. “I think, wrongly, it has a bad connotation.”


  • Cindi Pastore

    I think Rick Hess is mistaken, thinking Ritz’s victory can be chalked up to the public’s dislike of the common core. While that and local control might have been a factor for some people, it was really more that individuals could be shown the effects that the Bennett policies (high stakes testing, merit pay, etc) were having on the children of this state. It also could be pointed out time and time again that next to none of his policies had any credible research behind them. Yes, a few people were concerned about common core, but I would venture to say that initiatives that are developmentally inappropriate for voter’s children and grandchildren and initiatives that degraded teachers (all of whom have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends etc) were of much more concern. And this is why, despite all of Pence’s blather yesterday about continuing in Bennett and Daniels’ path, it is really not a good idea for him politically to stay on that road. If he’s astute at all, he will wise up.

    • kystokes

      Point well-taken, Cindi. There is probably a Venn Diagram of concerns that all boil back to “local control” in the voting booth — the concerns you mention + Common Core + charters/privates/privatization + etc. — and the one that the story above explains most fully is Common Core.

    • kystokes

      Also, I don’t think Rick Hess is the biggest Common Core fan, which would give him a reason to frame the race this way. But this blog post Hess wrote last summer even mentions Tony Bennett running into “a buzzsaw of pushback” on CCSS from the Tea Party… the writing, here — in one way, on this one issue — was on the wall:

    • Karynb9

      Yes, I really haven’t heard any Republican friends who voted for Ritz say a single word about the Common Core Standards. For many people, it came down to the fact that what they were hearing in the media from Dr. Bennett did not match up with the reality that they have experienced. People refused to believe that our education struggles are due to public school teachers who are lazy, ineffective, and scared of being held accountable because they may have to DO something. The public school teachers THEY know are hard-working people who care about students and are doing their best to help their students to succeed. They didn’t buy the fact that the only difference between A-rated public schools in Carmel and F-rated public schools in Gary is that Carmel has great teachers who are able to get their kids to score high on ISTEP while teachers in Gary must be ineffective because their students don’t score as high. They don’t believe that “charter schools are the answer” when they continue to see most charter schools performing no better than public schools with similar demographics. They refuse the accept the idea that a college degree in education and years of teaching experience handicap one as a teacher when they know that education and experience are valued in their own careers outside of education. They believe that a great teacher is measured by so much more than reading and math scores. Then, they realized that something was up when teacher after teacher after teacher who had never really voiced opinions on the presidency or the governor’s seat or the Senate race were going public and being bold in person and on social media about THIS particular race. When the past four years of rhetoric didn’t match up with their realities, people did what Dr. Bennett refused to do — trusted the judgment of teachers.

  • Btownteacher

    Karynb9 has it right. I got 2 emails from our union saying that ISTA supported Ritz, but as far as I’m concerned, that was the end of it from them. Everyone I knew wrote postcards, made calls, wrote letters, and talked up how these “reform” policies were affecting students and teachers. I never talk politics, so my friends and family knew this was serious. When I shared my story of simultaneously working in an “A” school and an “”F” school (guess who has the harder job?!), and how those grades came about, people were eager to do what they could. What I’d like to know is how Bennett’s corporate ties and the Freedom of Information Act request for email communication between him and Jeb Bush was not front page news. Why were the media not looking at his donors and publicly questioning why out-of-state hedge fund managers and department store heiresses were pouring money into his campaign? It’s enough to make me a conspiracy-theorist! And while I certainly did not prefer Bennett’s methods or his communication style, I beg to differ that this upset was just about him. It was a definite and resounding rejection of the “reformist” policies pushed by the current administration, and the idea that corporations should have more voice in government just because they have deep pockets! Governor-elect Pence will be committing political suicide if he doesn’t wise up to that.

  • INParent

    I think Cindi Pastore hit the nail square on the head when she said ” I would venture to say that initiatives that are developmentally inappropriate for voter’s children and grandchildren”. Learning is a complex process the involves a whole host of factors and the fact every child is different. You go messing with emotions, motivation and a child’s future outlook on how they view learning, what you can do is harm a child for ever. The current path the state was on of simply raising the curriculum to advance levels and then thinking you instantly get smart students shows how naive those leaders were. Plus add to that holding a hammer over the head of teachers to force this stuff down on the children. Bennett was doing more harm to children than good. Curriculum needs to be more developmentally and age appropriate and not based on someones over ambitious political motives.

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