Glenda Ritz’s upset of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett sent shock waves across the country. Bennett, after all, is a national figure in education circles – the head of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, able to bring in big money from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago hedge-fund managers and a Wal-Mart heiress. He raised 10 times as much campaign cash as Ritz.
What happened? In a word, teachers. In fact, if you talk to teachers, retired teachers or people who hang out with teachers, you may hear they aren’t the least bit surprised that Bennett lost.
His policies, and the way he advocated for them, angered and threatened Indiana educators. There are more than 68,000 public elementary and second teachers in Indiana. They have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, cousins and friends. And they vote. Many parents talk to their children’s teachers and know whether and why they’re unhappy. Quite a few school administrators and school board members didn’t like what they perceived as Bennett’s heavy-handed ways.
“It really did boil down to a grass-roots effort by the teachers, the teachers’ union and the administrators,” said Terry Spradlin, director of education policy with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
Ritz also may have caught a break from the fact that Gov. Mitch Daniels sidelined himself from politics after being named president of Purdue University. He and Bennett worked hand-in-hand on education, and a little strategic campaigning by the governor could have made a difference.
Bennett, a Republican, said this about the election to State Impact Indiana: “I don’t think it’s a message on reform. I believe it was a referendum on Tony Bennett.”
There’s probably some truth to that. Bennett’s policies –more charter schools, private-school vouchers, test-based accountability for schools and teachers, limits on collective bargaining – have substantial support. But there was a sense, in the Statehouse and the voting booth, that Indiana had gone too far, too fast. We Hoosiers tend toward caution and pragmatism; we’re comfortable being in the middle. We’ll let someone else try reform first, to see how it works.
That wasn’t Bennett’s way.
What happens next?
Superintendent of public instruction is an administrative office. Ritz may not like heavy reliance on standardized tests, Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system, evaluations that rate teachers according to their effectiveness or the state’s adoption of the Common Core Standards. But she doesn’t make the laws; the legislature does. She doesn’t even make the administrative rules, such as the new criteria for grades; that’s the job of the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.
What happens when Ritz must carry out laws that she doesn’t agree with? We’ll see. And Ritz, a Democrat aligned with the ISTA, will have to get creative to win support for her ideas from mostly anti-union Republicans who now enjoy “super majorities” in both the House and Senate. The GOP can achieve a quorum and pass legislation even if Democrats don’t show up.
“She’ll have the power of the bully pulpit to advocate for public education and for her agenda. That means a lot still,” said Spradlin, who worked for Bennett’s predecessor, Suellen Reed, a Republican who worked effectively with Democratic governors and lawmakers. “But the reality is, House Speaker Brian Bosma has the capacity to move an agenda that’s far to the right of Ritz’s agenda. There may be some moderation, but I don’t see any retraction on the policies that have passed the last four years.”
Spradlin said the ball will be in the court of newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Pence. Will Pence offer Ritz an olive branch? Or will he push ahead with more policy changes that unsettle teachers?
Is it time for an appointed state superintendent?
Here’s the nuclear option: Republicans could simply change the law to eliminate Ritz’s elected position and let the State Board of Education appoint the state’s chief education officer.
In fact, switching from an elected to an appointed state superintendent is discussed at the Statehouse every few years. The argument, which makes some sense, is that the governor and state superintendent should be on the same page when it comes to education policy.
A 2008 policy brief from CEEP reported that Indiana was one of only 11 states that elect their chief state education officers. In several of those states, unlike in Indiana, the elections are nonpartisan.
Spradlin thinks the change may have been made in 2013 if Bennett had won the election, but it’s unlikely the legislature would so blatantly disenfranchise the people – no doubt including many Republicans – who voted for Ritz.
“That probably would not play well with the public,” Spradlin said. “I don’t think voters would appreciate that.”