Gov.-elect Mike Pence might want to reconsider his plan to push for more school choice. The message Indiana voters sent in electing the first Democratic state superintendent in 42 years is a clear sign they’ve had enough.
Glenda Ritz, a Marion County teacher and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Indiana’s school voucher law, overcame a huge fundraising disadvantage to upset incumbent Tony Bennett.
In his first term, the former superintendent of Greater Clark County Schools pushed what was likely the most aggressive agenda in the nation – championing the voucher law, charter school expansion, limits on teacher collective bargaining, letter grades for schools and more.
He also pushed to take over struggling schools, this fall handing operation of several schools in Lake and Marion counties to education management companies. His efforts were eagerly embraced by the GOP-controlled legislature and Gov. Mitch Daniels, who endorsed Bennett even before his Republican predecessor, Suellen Reed, had announced she would not seek re-election.
With pushback from public school teachers across Indiana, some GOP lawmakers were calling for a slowdown on education bills by the end of the last session. Tuesday’s results are likely to ensure the pace of so-called reform bills will slow and some flawed legislation, including a law that gives charter schools the right to claim unused school buildings, is likely to get a closer look.
Bennett’s supporters are likely to blame the Indiana State Teachers Association for the loss.
But Ritz’s victory has much more to do with the grassroots efforts of classroom teachers and public education advocates across the state.
Bennett’s loss has national significance. The state superintendent promoted his legislative success across the country last year, earning awards from conservative groups.
His campaign chest of about $1.5 million included contributions from billionaires and hedge-fund managers far from Indiana.
“If Bennett loses, this is a huge defeat for the right-wing reform agenda of teacher bashing and privatization,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” “Last year, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute honored Bennett as the ‘reformiest’ state superintendent. He has a national profile for his hard-driving agenda of charters, vouchers and high-stakes testing. A loss for Bennett means that Indiana voters are not willing to hand off public education to for-profit corporations or to allow Bennett to dismantle the teaching profession.”
Ritz raised about $325,000 in her campaign but enjoyed the enthusiastic support of teachers frustrated by the increasing demands by the Indiana Department of Education. Her pledge to back off the emphasis on standardized testing also seemed to resound with parents.
In spite of their own victories, Pence and the GOP majority at the Statehouse should take note of Ritz’s win. Hoosier voters aren’t buying their school-reform package.