News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 21, 2012

Campaigning to lead state schools

Candidates have starkly different visions

by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Glenda Ritz and Tony Bennett are both longtime educators, but how they see the sweeping changes in Indiana schools and classrooms couldn’t be more different.

The Republican Bennett has spent the past four years as the state’s superintendent of public instruction championing those changes.

They include GOP-backed legislation that expanded charter schools and created the nation’s largest school voucher program, created a merit pay system that ties teacher pay and tenure to student performance, imposed more high-stakes testing for grade promotion and graduation and created an A-to-F evaluation system to grade the effectiveness of schools.

Running for his second term, Bennett lauds those changes as cutting-edge reforms that make Indiana the model for the nation. And he’s called for even more.

“Why now would we want to slow down?” he asks.

The Democrat Ritz cites the very things Bennett hails as the reasons why she decided to run against him, with support from the state’s teachers unions.

She objects to the major changes individually; for example, calling the new 3rd-grade reading assessment test both harmful and “heart-breaking” for students who fail it and risk being held back a grade. But she also sees the changes as a collective effort to undermine public education, set public teachers up for failure and lay the groundwork, she said, to “privatize schools.”

“All this legislative action has gone through so quickly with no barriers, and no understanding of the awful consequences,” Ritz said. “I really feel like teachers, kids, parents and communities have been caught in the middle of a political agenda.”

Bennett and Ritz differ on substance, but also in style.

Ritz, 58, of Indianapolis has been a classroom teacher for 33 years. The mild-mannered mother of two thinks teachers have been left out of the process of education reform and demonized by reform advocates. She was a longtime Republican who left the party when Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels began pushing hard for the education changes that have been put into place.

Bennett, 51, from New Albany, has been a classroom teacher, school administrator, and basketball coach. He describes himself as competitive and impatient – and also misunderstood. He regrets he’s been portrayed by opponents as someone who doesn’t value teachers or public education.

“That’s a caricature of me they drew, that I allowed them to draw,” Bennett said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Ritz and Bennett also differ on how they’d spend the next four years, if elected.

Ritz believes Bennett and the state Department of Education, which he oversees, have overstepped with aggressive implementation of the education-reform legislation passed over the past four years.

If elected, she said, she’d do whatever she could to slow down the education overhaul and have the DOE work with every school district in the state on a comprehensive assessment of how schools and students have been impacted by all the changes.

“The policies out of the Statehouse have been one-size-fits-alls,” Ritz said. “It’s been: ‘Here are the policies. Here are the mandates. Now get it done.’”

Bennett disagrees. He acknowledges that the state has set new standards for students’ academic performance, teacher evaluations and other measures. “But how schools reach those standards are up to them,” he said.

If re-elected, Bennett said, he’d oppose any effort to slow down implementation of the major reforms. “Lack of implementation is the death of reform,” he said.

Another major difference is the size of their campaigns’ war chest. 

The latest campaign financial reports (released in mid-October) show Bennett’s campaign has raised more than $1.3 million, with some of that money coming from big-ticket donors who’ve supported similar education changes like that going in Indiana. That includes $200,000 from Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and $40,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Ritz’s campaign, in comparison, had raised less than $224,000, with much of that money coming from teachers’ unions political action committees and from small individual donors.

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