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December 15, 2012

New school leader making allies, even across party lines

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s new schools superintendent, Glenda Ritz, is making some allies in the Statehouse: Republican legislators who pushed the education-reform laws that triggered a wave of voter discontent that carried the Democrat Ritz into her new job.

Those alliances could lead to some changes in how some of the laws, aimed at boosting teacher accountability and increasing student achievement, are being implemented.

A hint of what those changes may be came last week, at a legislative preview conference where Ritz shared a microphone — and some common ground — with a would-be adversary, Republican state Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse.

Both said the new A-to-F grading system for schools has been a failure; both are critical of a high-stakes teacher-evaluation tool that ties teacher pay to student test scores; and both want the state to commit to fully funding full-day kindergarten before its starts doling out dollars for pre-kindergarten programs.

And both, despite their significant differences on some major issues – including the private-school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools that Kruse favors – have pledged to work together to get some things done.

“I’ve never, ever asked, in any position that I’ve served in leadership in, anybody’s political party and I don’t intend to pay attention to that now,” said Ritz, the only Democrat elected to statewide office in November.

“I’m going to talk to whomever I need to talk to, to be sure I have what I need to get things done,” she added.

Ritz, 60, is a longtime classroom teacher who likes to say she’s “an educator, not a politician.”

It’s true she’d never run for office before this year, when she switched political parties to take on the current superintendent of public instruction, Republican Tony Bennett. (Bennett, who lost the November race, was appointed head of the Florida schools system last week.)

But Ritz is practicing some good politics in forging relationships with some key Republicans; it’s their party that holds super-majority control of both the state House and Senate.

“She understands that if she takes an adversarial approach, she’ll get nothing,” said Kruse.

Republican state Sen. Luke Kenley, an education-reform advocate and head of the Senate appropriations committee, said his initial skepticism of Ritz changed after spending a couple of hours with her, talking details of education policy.

“She clearly knows what the issues are,” Kenley said. “I suggested there would be a number of things she would probably be in favor of, that we could advance.”

Among them: re-examining how teachers are being evaluated due to a law that ties teacher pay and tenure to student achievement. “We’re both very concerned that we find the right kind of model that helps build good teachers,” Kenley said.

Ritz won her election by getting 1.3 million votes – winning more votes than Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence did.

While some Democrats and teacher-unions leaders claimed her victory was a wholesale rejection by voters of the sweeping changes made in K-12 schools in recent years, she doesn’t see it that way.

“There are many things that are already in law that I don’t have a problem with.” said Ritz. “It’s the implementation of the laws that perhaps has had the negative effects on classrooms and schools and the school systems in our state.”

Kruse, Kenley and other GOP legislators have already promised they’ll take a look at how to reshape the new A to F grading system for schools, which caused significant consternation when they were released in October.

The system, based on a complicated formula that uses test scores and a “growth model” that compares academic peers, came out of a new law that was intended to give parents a clear look at how their child’s school was performing.

But how those grades were configured instead was confusing, Kruse said. “The formula was so complex that even Ph.Ds in education can’t understand it.”

Officially, Ritz doesn’t take office until January. But she’s already working overtime, working with a transition team to craft potential legislation, hire top staff, and, she said, dispel some the misconceptions that legislators may have of her.

“I think there is a perception, perhaps, of me being opposed to everything that was passed and that’s just not true. I mean, it’s just not true,” said Ritz.

“It’s the implementation of those laws that has been my focus,” she said. “I want to see a different pathway to implementing those laws.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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