Here’s a question with no clear answer: Why has the Indiana State Teachers Association endorsed a conservative Republican with a weak record on education for re-election to the Indiana Senate?
The decision, to back Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, over Democratic challenger Mary Ann Sullivan of Indianapolis, has politics watchers scratching their heads — and in some cases venting their outrage.
Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star calls it “truly a shocker.” IUPUI professor and former Indiana Civil Liberties Union director Sheila Kennedy calls it “inexplicable.” Larry Grau of Indiana Democrats for Education Reform accuses the ISTA of acting out of spite and turning its back on public education. Star columnist Matt Tully insists the endorsement demonstrates “just how morally bankrupt it (the ISTA) is.”
As Elliott and Kennedy point out, it’s not surprising that the ISTA didn’t endorse Sullivan. As a member of the Indiana House, she has taken positions that are anathema to the group. In 2011, she voted for expansion of charter schools, limits on collective bargaining for school employees and test-based evaluation and merit pay for teachers – policies that Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Republican majority pushed through the legislature. She co-authored the charter-schools bill and co-sponsored the teacher evaluation legislation.
But Waltz also voted for the 2011 education bills that Sullivan supported. And he backed the most questionable of that year’s education measures: taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for private schools. Sullivan voted no on vouchers. So why wouldn’t the ISTA at least sit this contest out?
Waltz came to the Senate as a conservative culture warrior. He pulled off one of the all-time upsets in Indiana politics by ousting longtime Senate fiscal leader Larry Borst in the 2004 GOP primary, after a campaign in which Waltz accused Borst of being too moderate. He helped start a “conservative caucus” within the state legislature, and he has been rock-solid on conservative litmus-test issues: against abortion, against illegal immigration, against gay marriage. Grau says he voted against full-day kindergarten and voted for cuts in education funding.
On the other hand, Waltz bucked his party early this year to vote against anti-union right-to-work legislation. (Sullivan voted against it too). Maybe Waltz is trying to re-invent himself as a moderate, at least on labor issues. Maybe he made pledges to the ISTA that Sullivan wouldn’t match.
It’s tempting to see the endorsement the way Grau and Tully see it: as payback because Sullivan didn’t follow ISTA marching orders the way a good Democrat should. But the ISTA exists to represent teachers, not to advance the Democratic Party. There are unquestionably many public-school teachers in Indiana who are Republicans and conservatives. Many won’t have a problem with Waltz’s positions on gay marriage, abortion or immigration if they think he can change his stripes on education.
What’s troubling about the endorsement is that it feels like one more instance of the all-or-nothing approach that has come to characterize politics. Sullivan is by all accounts a smart and principled lawmaker who is open and honest about her beliefs. There ought to be a place in the legislature – on both sides of the aisle – for members who take positions based on what they think is right rather than following orders from leadership or calculating the political fall-out from every vote.
Teacher Jon Easter, writing on the Indy Democrat blog, says he and his friend Sullivan have strong differences over merit pay and charter schools. “Despite that, she never stops asking my opinion,” he writes. “She never shuts down. She never stops trying to learn. I think that’s important. Mary Ann Sullivan arrives at her personal principles on education not because some party boss told her to vote a certain way or because she knows that she’ll gain favor with a union, but she arrives at her principles because she thinks it’s the best thing for Hoosier students.”
You’d think that would count for something.