News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 10, 2013

MARK BENNETT: For Glenda Ritz, being educator, ‘not a politician’ still makes good political sense

TERRE HAUTE — Educator, not a politician.

Glenda Ritz emphasizes that distinction about herself. Indeed, last month, Ritz stepped from the classroom — after three decades as a teacher — into the job of Indiana superintendent of public instruction. Yet she won November’s election against controversial but widely known incumbent Tony Bennett by mastering the Teddy Roosevelt theory of political success on her uphill 2012 campaign trail.

“The most successful politician is he who says what the people are thinking most often in the loudest voice,” the Rough Rider president once said.

Ritz didn’t shout down Bennett, a forceful speaker himself. She did, though, voice concerns of at least the 1.3 million Hoosiers who voted for her about the waves of school reforms and high-stakes standardized testing. As a result, this Republican who ran as a Democrat just to challenge Bennett got elected to statewide office while the GOP dominated the Indiana House, Senate and governor’s races.

Politician? Maybe not. But this teacher, fittingly, appears to be a quick study of the political world surrounding her. Ritz’s first three weeks in office reflect her perceptiveness.

Last fall, her criticism of the education agenda of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, Bennett and their Statehouse allies was tactful yet direct, sometimes sharp. Though Daniels and Bennett no longer are in office, like-minded Republicans remain in power, dominantly, from new Gov. Mike Pence to both chambers of the Legislature and the Board of Education.

In the wake of Bennett’s defeat, they quickly closed party ranks against her. On Day 1 of his administration, Pence used an executive order to shift the state superintendent’s role as supervisor of the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board to the governor. He vowed to preserve the reforms she’d criticized. Likewise, Republicans in the current session of the General Assembly proposed two bills that would dilute the superintendent’s powers.

Her response has been conciliatory, not adversarial. Her style thawed the chill with skeptics. Compromise has happened, even cooperation, particularly on issues where common ground — or, at least, its potential — exists.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Ritz sounded optimistic about her working relationship with Pence and the Legislature.

“Actually, I’m having very cooperative conversations with both Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “I’m an educator, and I think everybody’s respecting that. They know I’m in a position in which I know a great deal about quality instruction in the classroom. They know I’m a national board-certified teacher. I’m having great conversations about education. I’m not a politician, and I think everybody over here at the Statehouse is acknowledging that and really are embracing a lot of my conceptual projects that I want to put in place.”

For example?

“I want to go from a pass-fail approach in our assessments on ISTEP to a true growth-model measure, so we really know where our students are in reading and writing and math, and how they are progressing,” Ritz said.

Some (but not all) legislators like her outlook on Common Core, a system of uniform curriculum standards that have been adopted in 46 states, including Indiana. Ritz’s predecessor, Bennett, actually pushed for Indiana to adopt Common Core, but conservatives and tea partiers within his own party later pushed back against them when the standards got labeled as a federal encroachment endorsed by President Obama. A Republican state senator sponsored a bill to withdrawn Indiana from Common Core. Ritz opposes such a move, but instead favors a careful analysis of whether Common Core fits Indiana before fully implementing it.

“I do not want to rebuke the Common Core,” she said. “We started transition [to it], and we have transition — [kindergarten and first grade] classrooms are implementing Common Core now. But what I do want to do in 2013 is take a look at our standards, especially in the area of math, because we need to have a good conversation about our delivery of math courses.”

Her idea for a contemplative “pause” in the process is being heard. The Senate Education Committee Chairman, Dennis Kruse, an Auburn Republican, told State Impact Indiana he’s crafting a compromise to the withdraw-from-Common-Core bill. It likely would initiate a series of statewide meetings on the standards, before any changes in the state’s participation.

Kruse also announced his committee would not hear the proposed bills that would strip away the duties of Ritz’s office.

Those bills are political maneuvers. Ritz steers her attention toward those affecting classrooms.

“I’m not keeping track too much of bills for or against,” she said. “I think there’s been a clear message at the Statehouse. In general, people aren’t really interested in limiting my power. They’re interested in what am I going to do to work with the education system and bring about positive change.”

So, when asked whether she supports Pence’s education agenda, Ritz sticks to their common ground.

“I definitely support his career-education agenda,” she said, referring to his plan to upgrade vocational skills training in Hoosier high schools.

The same goes for the major Daniels-era reforms, such as the nation’s largest use of public-funded vouchers for private-school tuition. “I don’t look at anything as ‘rolling back.’ I don’t go back in time,” Ritz said. “… I’m looking at transforming what it is that we had in place.”

Topping her list of transformation projects is the saturation of high-stakes, standardized testing into the day-to-day classroom teaching.

“We’re taking away valuable instructional time from our students. I am going to come from the perspective of what’s right for the classroom,” Ritz said. “If it is negatively affecting the classroom, then we shouldn’t be doing it. And all the testing that we’ve been doing in the state of Indiana is having a negative impact on our instruction in the classroom, so we just have to turn that around. We have to have meaningful assessments that are going to give us just enough data to allow educators and parents to do our job in educating the kids and making sure we’ve got good, quality time in the classroom.”

In a 15-minute interview, Ritz said “classroom” nine times and “education” 13 times. She mentioned politics just twice.

Class dismissed.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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