New state superintendent looks past party labels for good ideas

2012-11-25T00:00:00Z 2013-12-28T18:51:30Z New state superintendent looks past party labels for good ideasDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
November 25, 2012 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | Glenda Ritz, the newly elected Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, isn't going to let a state government controlled by Republicans stop her from making changes she believes will improve Indiana's schools.

The Indianapolis teacher said she knows there aren't enough votes in the Republican-dominated Legislature to make big changes, such as repealing Indiana's private school voucher program, but said her position has enough flexibility to get the state "moving forward in a different direction."

For example, Ritz said she supports the requirement all third-graders be able to read but plans to get rid of the pass/fail test implemented by her predecessor, Republican Tony Bennett. Students instead would be provided intensive reading instruction and measured on their growth toward literacy, rather than by their performance on a single, high-stakes test.

She said that also applies to Bennett's relentless focus on ISTEP-Plus standardized testing and the complicated A-F grading system used to rate local schools.

"I believe there's policy and implementation that goes in a different direction from what we're doing now," Ritz said.

Ritz wants the Indiana Department of Education to also do a better job supporting local schools instead of just telling them what to do.

"We're going to be doing quite a different approach, a real, real bottom-up approach in providing professional development, resources and any type of support that might be needed," Ritz said. "When you get memos from me regarding policy you will already know what it's about, because you will have been part of making the decision."

Ritz said her inclusive management style goes beyond the traditional education constituencies of teachers, principals and the like, and extends to mayors and city councils who she said have a major stake in the quality of their schools. 

"We're going to be working with the community to make plans and put in motion action that will actually address the challenges," Ritz said.

Her victory over Bennett on Nov. 6 was the surprise of Indiana's election night. The Republican incumbent outspent her by a 4-to-1 margin, but Ritz's under-the-radar social media campaign netted her more votes than any other Democratic candidate for statewide office. Ritz even out-polled Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence.

Immediately after the election, Pence, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, acted confrontational toward Ritz -- reminding her in no uncertain terms that Bennett-supported education reforms, such as expanded charter schools and vouchers, are written into state law and not easily changed. 

"I want to be very clear, I support the policies and progress that we've made on education," Pence said the day after the election. "We will support them in the next four years and we will seek ways to build on that, that really put kids first and continue to put Indiana in the forefront of education reforms that focus on results."

Republican defensiveness in the face of a Democratic interloper seemed to diminish last week after Ritz met with House and Senate leaders and the chairmen of both chambers' education committees.

Ritz said she's interested in working with Pence to implement his plan for added vocational and technical education in Indiana high schools and is eager to hear from state legislators about their ideas that can improve learning in Hoosier classrooms.

"I don't really care what political party a legislator belongs to, I'll be working with everyone," Ritz said.

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