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Can Glenda Ritz change Indiana education policy?

She has a prominent platform and many obstacles

Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 10:13 am

Democrat Glenda Ritz has won a four-year term as the state superintendent of public instruction, but can she change state policy on education?

Her role is mainly administrative, supervising the state's Department of Education. Gov.-elect Mike Pence is a Republican. In the General Assembly, Republicans outnumber Democrats by a ratio of 2-to-1 in the House of Representatives and nearly 3-to-1 in the Senate. Together they enact laws and appropriate money.

What leverage does Ritz hold in the face of that Republican control? It comes down to this: She has a prominent stage, and the political power available to her depends on how she uses that public stage.

“A lot of that will depend on her own personal characteristics,” said John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. “I do think she has a constituency. She has a chance to pound the bully pulpit loudly, consistently and logically.”

Working across political divide

Having a governor and a superintendent of different parties isn't unprecedented.

Suellen Reed spent 16 years in the job Ritz has won. The first 12 of those years were with Govs. Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan, all Democrats. However, her approach was not one of fierce confrontation; she found areas on which she and the Democrats in office could agree.

In a news conference Wednesday, Pence said he was disappointed that Bennett lost but would be willing to work with Ritz “to look for areas of common purpose.”

The election of Ritz appeared to many to be a rejection of wide changes in education policy pushed by Bennett, such as high-stakes testing linked to merit pay and the use of state vouchers for private-school tuition. During her campaign, she pledged to roll back that agenda.

A political upset

State Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said Wednesday he thinks Bennett lost because he was a “lightning rod” for the dissatisfaction of teachers upset with changes in state law. Those teachers, in turn, became a campaign network for Ritz. Also contributing to Ritz' win, he suggested, may have been the ill-fated candidacy of Republican Richard Mourdock. Kruse, who is chairman of the Education Committee in the Senate, speculated that Mourdock's run for the U.S. Senate may have soured some voters on Republicans and left them searching for a Democrat or two they could support.

Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board, said that instead of picking his fights, “Tony (Bennett) never saw a battle he could stay out of.” He credited Bennett with a strong enthusiasm for school improvement, but said he was too narrowly focused on teachers as the explanation for all shortcomings in education.

“I don't think Glenda (Ritz) is going to take that myopic perspective,” GiaQuinta said.

Pence said that by enlarging the Republican majority in the Legislature, voters have endorsed the education agenda promoted by Bennett and enacted by legislators and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The practical challenge

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, said Wednesday that Ritz must confront a practical problem early on: learning how to operate a sizeable state agency. Ritz has been a teacher for 35 years, but she has not been a principal or superintendent.

“She has a relatively significant learning curve to get through,” Downs said.

Kruse said the Department of Education has about 200 employees, and Ritz may want to replace some of them with her own hires.

And while a partisan, confrontational campaign may have been key to winning election, it's also likely to make her transition to office a bit rockier, Downs pointed out.

He recalled that she appeared with other Democrats at many rallies, telling voters that unless they elect other Democrats to office “her life will be difficult. Now there will be some Republicans who will say, 'Let me show you how your life can be difficult.'”

Working with Republicans

GiaQuinta said besides a simple bully pulpit – which he hopes Ritz will use to press for mandatory full-day kindergarten and more preschool – she may find unexpected allies among Republicans in the Legislature.

“A lot of those Republican legislators like their local schools. A lot of the Republican legislators don't like big government telling their schools what to do,” GiaQuinta said.

Kruse said he “will work with her as best I can,” but he emphasized that she doesn't have much independent authority for making rules or setting policy. Legislators could restrict that authority even more by writing more detailed laws that leave less room for interpretation and rule-making.

However, it's unlikely that the Legislature will tackle another round of massive changes in education policy, Kruse said. He did say that some moves to accommodate Pence's interest in improving vocational and technical education are likely.

One lesson from the election is clear: The Indiana State Teachers Association remains a union with great political power. The teachers' union provided a lot of the organization, networking and grassroots support that helped Ritz overcome raising much less money than Bennett.

As Ketzenberger suggested, the political heft of the teachers is a lesson Republicans may pay attention to, even with outsized majorities in the House and Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.