What does it mean that Indiana voters gave Republicans a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature, but handed the top education post over to a Democrat who railed against what GOP lawmakers have done to Indiana schools?
The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask.
Mike Pence, the Republican who voters elected to take the place of education reformer Gov. Mitch Daniels, told reporters last week that the election of political newcomer Glenda Ritz as superintendent of public instruction means a whole lot of nothing.
“I believe in our candidacy, in the election of a super majority in the (state) House of Representatives, we have a strong affirmation of the progress on education reform,” said Gov.-elect Pence.
No matter that Pence earned just 50 percent of the vote, and that Ritz actually won more votes than he did.
A few hours later that day, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma — in the flush of a GOP victory that negates the need for a single Democratic lawmaker to show up next session — echoed the sentiment:
“This is not an indictment in any way of reforms,” Bosma said. Instead, he cited personality, saying Ritz’s toppling of Republican incumbent Tony Bennett was about “tone and presentation” — a not-so-veiled reference to Bennett’s hard-charging and unapologetic manner.
Bennett has a big personality, but it pales in comparison to the big education measures that were put into place by Daniels and GOP lawmakers over the last two years: The nation’s largest voucher program, a big expansion of charter schools, the virtual end to teachers' collective bargaining rights, and much more high-stakes testing for students.
In a post-election interview with Education Week, Bennett blamed the teachers’ unions, who despise both him and the reforms he championed; and he blamed tea partiers, who don’t like how Bennett and fellow reformers embraced education standards set down by the federal government.
An Indiana teachers’ union official called those responses “asinine” and said Ritz’s win was a clear signal that Hoosier voters saw the Republican-driven overhaul of kindergarten-12 education as too radical.
Ritz, who ran an amazing grassroots campaign at a fraction of the cost of Bennett’s and with big help from social-media genius David Galvin, was clear all along: The race between her and Bennett was a “referendum on the future of education in Indiana.”
My guess is that the answers lie somewhere in between all that hot rhetoric.
From the independent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll taken a week before the election, we do know that women, especially those of the age with children in school, liked Ritz a lot more than they liked Bennett. And from the Howey poll, we also know Bennett was getting support from only 68 percent of Republicans.
Ritz beat Bennett 52 percent to 48 percent, so we know from that result that in this “red” state, there were Republicans who were splitting their ticket. (A split that helped put Democrat Joe Donnelly into the U.S. Senate.)
Here’s my question to voters who picked Ritz (especially you Republicans out there): What made you vote the way you did? What piece or pieces of the education overhaul (most of which are now locked into law) do you not like?
Please let me know, by emailing me at maureen.hayden@
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star.