INDIANAPOLIS — Democrat Glenda Ritz won the race for the state’s schools superintendent by challenging the education overhaul implemented by Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, but her power to stop the sweeping changes in Indiana schools may be limited.
The big measures put into place over the last two years — merit pay for teachers, the takeover of failing schools, more high-stakes testing, vouchers for private schools, and more — were locked into law by the Republican-controlled state legislature. And the rule-making for implementing those laws, and the dispersing of state dollars to local schools, rests not with the office that Ritz won Tuesday, but with the State Board of Education, whose next batch of members will be appointed by a Republican governor.
Ritz sees her victory as a mandate for change.
“The voters were loud and clear,” Ritz said as she was getting ready to leave for Washington, D.C., to attend a national meeting of educators. “This was a referendum on education on Indiana; it wasn’t really about Tony Bennett.”
But Republican leaders in the Statehouse don’t see it that way. In separate press conferences the day after Ritz won, both Governor-elect Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma tried to trump Ritz by citing their own numbers: Voters not only put the pro-reform Pence into office, but gave the GOP the supermajority control of both chambers — which means not a single Democrat is needed to conduct legislative business.
“The message I received from that wasn’t a ‘whoa,’” Bosma said. Instead, he said, it was a message to keep moving forward on education reform.
But some lawmakers are hearing a slightly different message from the vote, and reading it as sign that they may need to do some more listening to voters’ fears and worries about the big and fast changes they’ve imposed. Among them are State Sen. Carlin Yoder, a Republican from Middlebury and a former school administrator. He helped carry some of the big pieces of education legislation, including the laws that expanded charter schools, created vouchers for private schools, and tied teacher pay to student achievement. Yoder doesn’t want any of it rolled back and doesn’t think his constituents do either: Yoder won re-election with a more than two-to-one margin over his Democrat opponent. But on election night, he said, he was surprised by the number of Republicans who came up to him and said: “I voted for you, but I also voted for Glenda Ritz.”
Yoder said the reasons they gave had to do with how unhappy teachers and school administrators were, feeling shut out by Bennett, a hard-charging administrator who’d become the face of education reform in Indiana.
“As we go forward, we need to make sure everybody feels included in this conversation,” Yoder said. “I think that was more the message of this election result than anything else. It’s not a sign that we need to stop education reform or backtrack. We need to make sure that all our kids get a great education.”
Ritz said she too wants a great education for all Hoosier children.
“I’m not out to roll back all these reforms,” said Ritz, who acknowledged that she doesn’t even have the authority to do so. But she does think there needs to be a slow-down of some of the changes, especially some of the high-stakes testing like the third-grade reading assessment test that can impact whether a student gets promoted to the next grade.
During that slow-down period, she said, legislators need to do more listening about how the education laws are impacting local schools and local communities.
Reform supporters will be warily watching what Ritz does, once she’s in office, including the people she hires to fill key positions. They fear she could impose some bureaucratic hurdles that would force the slow-down she wants.
“She can make things difficult,” said Derek Redelman, the education point-person for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “But she’s got to know that the more difficult she makes it, the more people are just going to go around her.”