States

Indiana State Schools Chief Loses in Upset

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 13, 2012 4 min read
Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, celebrates defeating Indiana's Republican state schools chief, Tony Bennett. A teacher, she drew strong union support.

Indiana voters delivered one of the biggest education-related election surprises of Nov. 6 when they picked Democrat Glenda Ritz to be their new superintendent of public instruction over Republican Tony Bennett, an incumbent with a high national profile.

Ms. Ritz’s victory, with 53 percent of the vote, came despite her having raised only $327,000 in campaign contributions to Mr. Bennett’s $1.3 million.

The win by Ms. Ritz, a teacher in Washington Township schools in Indianapolis, raises the possibility that policy initiatives Mr. Bennett championed could stall or be reversed, ranging from implementation of the Common Core State Standards to school choice.

But just how big her role will be in the state’s GOP-dominated political landscape is uncertain.

It is also unclear how she will work with the newly elected governor, Mike Pence, a Republican who currently serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a state legislature that now has GOP supermajorities in both chambers. Both Mr. Pence and Ms. Ritz take office in January.

At the same time, Ms. Ritz’s election represents a significant victory for the 45,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association. The National Education Association affiliate backed her in the campaign and has often been a prominent voice against the policies Mr. Bennett pursued with the help of outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, and conservative Indiana lawmakers.

“Now Glenda will have to work with Republican leaders who really have the authority to move a legislative agenda, as far as K-12 education policy,” said Terry Spradlin, the director for education policy at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, in Bloomington. He said she will “certainly” move to what he deemed more moderate positions.

“She’ll be facing an uphill battle,” Mr. Spradlin said.

Common-Core Backlash?

Mr. Bennett is the chairman of Chiefs for Change, a group of state schools chiefs whose policy goals include expanding school choice and increasing accountability for schools and teachers. Other members include Louisiana’s John White and New Jersey’s Christopher Cerf. The group is affiliated with the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, whose chairman is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Although observers have called Ms. Ritz’s win an upset, Mr. Bennett said he knew during the campaign that the ISTA is a potent force in Indiana and that it would take hard work to defeat its preferred candidate. Ms. Ritz, in turn, said teachers’ “grassroots effort” was critical to her win.

“It turned out to be a total nonpartisan race, a referendum on education in Indiana,” she said. She added: “The teachers were talking. They were talking to everyone.”

But one specific issue—attitudes toward the common core—may have helped his opponent significantly, Mr. Bennett said. So far, 46 states have adopted the English/language arts standards, and 45 have done so in mathematics.

As state chief, Mr. Bennett has been a strong national proponent of the standards, unlike some other Republicans who are suspicious of them or oppose them outright. Mr. Bennett argued that Ms. Ritz used his advocacy of the common standards against him. “She did a very good job of appealing to the strong conservative base who had problems with the common core,” he said.

Ms. Ritz, though, said voters were upset about the common standards without any help from her.

“There was no input from parents, education groups. There was no input into the approval of the common core,” she said. The Indiana state board of education adopted the common core in 2010.

‘Shocking to Everybody’

The low profile of the chief’s race may also have made the difference, said David Harris, the founder and chief executive officer of the Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization in Indianapolis that runs an incubator for charter schools.

“I think it was shocking to everybody here,” said Mr. Harris, who also served as the charter school director for former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat. “Nobody saw this coming.”

Ms. Ritz said reducing the quantity of standardized assessments will be a key part of her agenda. She denied that she would be at loggerheads with Mr. Pence and Republicans in the legislature, and said that she looked forward to working with them on issues such as career and technical education and literacy. But to counter Ms. Ritz, the legislature may begin to prescribe how the state education department implements certain policies more than the lawmakers did with Mr. Bennett, Mr. Thomas said.

One legacy of Mr. Bennett’s, the state’s school voucher program, will be addressed Nov. 21, when the Indiana Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments on whether it is constitutional. Ms. Ritz has been a plaintiff in the case against the voucher program.

“I am a strong proponent of making sure we have public tax dollars going to public schools,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teacher Ousts Indiana Chief in Electoral Upset

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