There’s a lot of buzz this year about the idea that education could be a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 election. Candidates who are thinking about highlighting their support for public schools could look for inspiration to the 2012 Indiana election for superintendent of public instruction.
Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, won with a campaign that focused on her support for teachers and her opposition to vouchers and test-based school and educator accountability. In the solidly red state of Indiana, Ritz upset the Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, a hero of the national “education reform” crowd. Her grassroots campaign succeeded even though she was outspent more than 5-to-1.
Yes, Ritz was running to be Indiana’s chief school official, so it made sense that the race focused on education. But education should also be front-and-center in elections for governor and state legislature, offices that makes the laws governing how schools operate.
Ritz won by mobilizing teachers and their friends and supporters. Scott Elliott, then a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, analyzed the results and concluded she won via “a teacher-led movement, online and word-of-mouth, born of frustration with Bennett, his style and his policies.” If that kind of movement can elect a state superintendent, it could elect governors and legislators too.
2012 was, in general, a Republican year in Indiana. Mitt Romney got 54 percent of the presidential vote compared to 44 percent for Barack Obama. Mike Pence, now the vice president, was elected governor over a popular conservative Democrat, John Gregg. Republicans won super majorities in the House and Senate. Nearly as many votes were cast for superintendent of public instruction as for president.
This year, teacher strikes and protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Carolina and elsewhere have won widespread support for higher salaries and better school funding. Public education has emerged as a key Democratic issue in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, South Dakota and New Mexico.
It’s not just Democrats who can win on education. On the Republican side, conservative Kentucky schoolteacher R. Travis Brenda won a primary contest against House majority leader Jonathan Shell, who orchestrated pension and budget bills that led to massive teacher protests in the Bluegrass State.
The lesson there is that pro-gun and anti-abortion voters can be persuaded to support a candidate perceived as pro-education. It seemed that Ritz benefited from conservative support in 2012.
A one-term superintendent
Unfortunately, Ritz had more success as a candidate than an office-holder. She was undercut from the start by Pence, the Republican-dominated legislature and the appointed State Board of Education. As the only Democratic state office-holder in a GOP-run Indiana, she had little success advancing policy.
Some of her problems were of her own making, however. School administrators complained quietly about poor communication from the state Department of Education, which the superintendent heads. News media found her staff to be unresponsive. The department refused to disclose public records even when the state’s public access counselor said it should.
Ritz lost her re-election bid in 2016 to Republican Jennifer McCormick, who promised improved communication and organization. In a Trump landslide year, Ritz got more votes than any other Indiana Democrat but fell far short of McCormick (who has turned out to be a solid supporter of public schools). Ritz is now president of Advancing Public Schools LLC, a consulting firm.
But for today’s candidates, the lessons from Ritz’s 2012 election upset still hold true: Stand up for public schools, motivate teachers and count on the grass roots to deliver votes.