Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What Glenda Ritz's Victory Over Tony Bennett Means For Indiana Schools

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Democratic state superintendent candidate Glenda Ritz participates in a panel discussion in Indianapolis last month.

In late August — her campaign more than $1 million in campaign contributions behind her opponent, Tony Bennett — Democratic state superintendent candidate Glenda Ritz made a prediction.

“I am not worried about funding for this campaign,” she told StateImpact. “I have a good grassroots campaign. And at the end of the day, it’s about who shows up at the polls, and I firmly believe that I’ll be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Until perhaps last Friday, when the only poll to publish numbers on the race showed Ritz within striking distance, there weren’t many in Indiana who took that prediction seriously.

It took a stunning election night upset, $173,000 from the state’s largest teachers union and a strong ground game to prove Ritz’s prediction true.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Retired teacher Jill Lyday helps stuff bumper stickers and postcards into plastic bags for state superintendent candidate Glenda Ritz, a Democrat. Though Ritz's campaign received numerous small donations, two large cash infusions and organizational support from the Indiana State Teachers Association have been key to her run for office.

Many doubted Ritz’s ability to compete with Bennett, and not only because of his lead in campaign fundraising. Bennett was the face for significant changes to the state’s education policy. He expanded school choice, he intervened in struggling schools, he pushed for teacher evaluations and revamped A-F letter grades — and he won national acclaim in some circles for doing so.

“This [race] is definitely being watched nationally as a referendum on reform,” Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute and Bennett ally, told the Associated Press. “If Tony Bennett can push this kind of aggressive reform agenda and win, it will give a big lift to other politicians eager to enact similar reforms.”

‘It Might Be A Standoff’ In General Assembly

Ritz may have won the “referendum” on the direction of Indiana education policy, but it’s still far from clear the degree to which Ritz will be able to alter the course of Bennett’s policies.

After all, unlike Bennett, she will not work with a governor and statehouse leaders from her own party. As David Dresslar, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, told us in an interview:

It would probably be an uphill battle with regard to rolling back education reforms given fact that the legislature’s likely to be Republican majority in both chambers. Therefore it might be kind of a standoff with a Ritz superintendency. A standoff might just give us four years of inaction. On the other hand, the legislature could go ahead and proceed without the state superintendent. It’s an interesting consideration because of the superintendent’s role in formulating policy as opposed to carrying out that  policy once it’s legislated.

Jonathan Plucker, who was director of IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy when he spoke to StateImpact last month, says it would be difficult for Ritz to undo all of Bennett’s policy initiatives:

It’s going to be very difficult to roll back some of these reforms. Some of them certainly… for purely legal and policy reasons can’t be rolled back. Or if they do, it really opens a Pandora’s box. So for example if we roll back the new school accountability system, we have to change the waiver that we received from the federal government from the No Child Left Behind provisions, which is not going to be a minor, easy feat.

‘I Have Credibility Among Legislators’

Ritz told StateImpact after her win Tuesday night that she will be able to work with the General Assembly:

I think I’m going to be able to work with whomever I’m going to need to work with. I am an educator. I think I’m a respected educator among legislators. Remember, the last four years, they’ve seen me. They’ve heard from me. I’ve testified in many arenas, so I think I have some credibility among legislators. I have not really met Mike Pence. But I look forward to it so we that can be on a good path towards an educational agenda in Indiana.

That said, Ritz tells StateImpact she’ll work carefully to ensure any policy changes she makes don’t endanger funding for schools.

Questions Hard To Answer In One Election Night

Specifically, the policy positions she’s taken raise very big questions that we won’t even try to fully answer here. But they’re worth raising, simply because they show just how much about Indiana’s education policy has changed in the past four years:

  • Teacher Evaluations: Ritz’s primary electoral support came from teachers — many of whom, for the first time this year, will be subject to the requirements of a new statewide teacher evaluation mandate. Ritz says teachers ought to be evaluated, but the evaluations should not have high stakes attached to them, such as merit pay. Yet she cannot singlehandedly undo the requirements of the law — especially because many of the requirements are being wired into local teacher contracts. Will Ritz be able to take any action to address a desire of a key demographic that got her elected?
  • Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

    Glenda Ritz reads from her opening statement during a candidate forum at Wabash College in Crawfordsville.

    Takeovers: Indiana Department of Education officials signed contracts with several “turnaround operators” to run five public schools in Indianapolis and Gary with chronically poor standardized test scores. Ritz says she does not believe private companies should receive taxpayer dollars to operate schools. (Two of the three turnaround operators are private companies, one is a not-for-profit.) How will Ritz work with these turnaround operators?

  • Common Core: Tony Bennett was one of the nation’s leading supporters of a move to national academic standards known as the Common Core State Standards. Ritz is a skeptic of these standards (as are many within the Republican party) and has often said she wants to give the standards “a second look.” Ritz says she wants to “look into” the state’s agreements to move to new Common Core-focused standardized testsHow much will Ritz be able to dial back in Indiana’s embrace of the Common Core?
  • A-F Letter Grades & The NCLB Waiver: Ritz bashed school letter grades Bennett released last week, citing the widespread criticism to the new model used to calculate them. While Ritz wants to implement a “true growth model” — a shot at Tony Bennett’s Indiana Growth Model, which the outgoing state superintendent says makes individual student growth a greater factor in a school’s letter grade — much of the current A-F letter grading system is part of Indiana’s waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act. “That waiver has items in it where we’re going to need to comply with other consortiums and other vendor contracts that have been entered into which may not want to be the path we want to head in Indiana for education,” Ritz has told StateImpact. But implementing new statewide exams and changing the letter grade system could have dire impacts under the waiver. Will Ritz be able to untangle the A-F grades, the waiver, and the current testing regime?

We’re posing these questions now — but no rush. We have four years to answer them.

National Ripples?

The Indy Star‘s Scott Elliott posits Bennett will land on his feet. But what about the national education policy circles who supported him? As Andrew Ujifsa writes at State EdWatch:

This has to be a major blow for charter, school choice, and the general “education reform” community. Bennett was an outspoken champion of big changes that happened in the Hoosier State and others around the country, and he was also a strong GOP voice for things like the Common Core State Standards. What will his loss mean for that community going forward?

As Indiana Chamber of Commerce president Kevin Brinegar summed it up for Inside Indiana Business, “virtually all the legislators who voted in favor of education reform were re-elected and the Superintendent of Public Instruction was not.”

UPDATE: Take a look at this map showing how Bennett’s share of the county-by-county vote changed from 2008.

What are your thoughts on Glenda Ritz’s victory?

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