In a year that saw sweeping Republican victories in Indiana, more than 1.3 million Hoosiers chose Democrat Glenda Ritz for state superintendent. No clearer repudiation of the state’s direction in education policy – school choice, high-stakes testing, Common Core, punitive school letter grades – could be found than in the resounding 2012 defeat of Superintendent Tony Bennett, the face of so-called education reform.
But newly elected Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP-controlled General Assembly and deep-pocketed reform supporters did not get the message. They immediately set to work to diminish Ritz’s authority – at one point establishing a shadow education agency to undermine her work. The state superintendent has spent much of the past four years battling their obstructive efforts, but she delivered on her pledge to challenge the direction Indiana’s public schools were being taken. Today, Ritz remains the best candidate to prevent development of a two-tier system: private schools allowed to choose their own students and public schools left with fewer resources to serve everyone else. She’s best positioned to finally move to a student-centered testing system and to serve as a check on a voucher program with few safeguards.
Republican Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, has a solid record of serving students and public schools. But her promise to put students before politics is diminished by the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions she’s accepted from the very individuals and interest groups determined to steer money from public schools for private benefit.
McCormick cites former Republican State Superintendent Suellen Reed as a model of how she will work with those ideologically opposed to her approach. Reed was an effective partner with both Democratic administrations and mostly-Republican school administrators. But she was no match for Gov. Mitch Daniels, who recruited Bennett to replace the four-term GOP incumbent. A voucher law and other measures harmful to public schools followed.
Ritz’s approach has angered some. Frustrated by the continual attacks by some appointed State Board of Education members, she abruptly adjourned one meeting and left the room. Legislators then passed a law, effective in January, to remove the state superintendent’s authority as chairman of the board primarily responsible for education policy.
Ritz, a former school media specialist, defends her record, noting improvements in performance at nearly 200 schools targeted for assistance; supporting student success in career and technical education; an increased number of school safety specialists; continuing focus on family literacy; and a strategy to address a growing teacher shortage.
"The reason I speak about outreach so much is because that’s what my job is really about – serving kids in our schools, making sure they get what they need," she said. "Where people say they have a perception I don’t work with somebody? I work with everybody. That’s the only way I can move things forward."
McCormick pledges to improve communication, which she argues is "very splintered, not real timely and not very manageable to try to find what you’re being told."
"I would argue we don’t have a lot of real leadership at the (Department of Education) to give us the guidance that would be necessary for superintendents and principals and educators," she said.
It’s a valid complaint confirmed by other administrators, but it also ignores the full-court defense Ritz has been forced to employ. She would benefit in a second term from appointing an unofficial cabinet of advisers – retired administrators and teachers who can suggest ways to improve procedures for local school districts, particularly in improving the state’s testing program.
As a district superintendent,McCormick might be better prepared for administrative duties, but she is not prepared for the inevitable political forces. As of Wednesday, she had accepted more than $195,000 – more than two-thirds of her total contributions – from school choice advocates. Some are the same donors who backed Bennett four years ago. The same legislators responsible for laws harmful to public education will return to the Statehouse in January.
To ensure the votes they cast in 2012 continue to protect Indiana’s public schools and place students first, Hoosiers should choose Ritz once again.
Sunday: U.S. Senate, 3rd District Congress