Analysis

Glenda Ritz leaves office with an unexpected legacy: An energizing leader but also a one-hit wonder?

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Glenda Ritz address Democrat supporters as she concedes the race for Indiana superintendent on Tuesday night.

Late Tuesday night, after the GOP had swept most of Indiana’s Election Day races, Republicans watched the last big undecided race closely until they got the result they wanted there too — Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz had gone down in defeat.

For so many Indiana Republicans who had predicted that she he wouldn’t last beyond one term, the verdict was in. They had been right all along that she lacked staying power.

But Ritz’s legacy as a political leader isn’t so simple.

Four years ago at this time, in the days after the 2012 election, everyone involved in Indiana politics was trying to figure out what to make of Ritz’s upset win over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Her most energetic supporters declared her victory the start of a grassroots movement that eventually would roll back the controversial changes that Bennett had advanced including an expansion of school choice and a system of using student test scores to hold teachers and their schools accountable for student success.

His critics believed he had harmed public education and rallied around Ritz as the antidote.

But Republicans dismissed the idea that Ritz was anything more than a a one-hit wonder.

They thought Bennett’s sometimes pointed criticism of public schools, and especially public school teachers, had simply rubbed too many people the wrong way. They didn’t believe for a minute that Ritz, a classroom educator her whole career who ran an vastly under-funded and under-the-radar campaign, was ready to manage the Indiana Department of Education. Nor did they think the kindly teacher, who one Republican leader noted derisively was a librarian in her last school job, would be able to trade punches in the cage match that statehouse politics can often be.

So now that’s Ritz has been ousted by Republican Jennifer McCormick, superintendent in Yorktown and a career educator with no experience in state government, is it fair to consider Ritz a flameout? That question has a more complicated answer.

For all the energy that ultimately coalesced around Ritz as a political figure — a statehouse rally to support her when Republicans wanted to strip her power drew a raucous crowd in 2015 — the idea that she would lead a political movement certainly fizzled.

By her second year, some of her key Democratic allies in the state legislature lost their seats. When her supporters tried to unseat Republican House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, he easily won re-election. Ritz’s own campaign last summer to run for governor against her nemesis, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Pence, failed so badly to catch on that she called it off after just 10 weeks.

Finally Ritz’s bid for a second term as the state’s top election official re-election campaign crashed and burned, too.

Despite all that, Ritz made a name for herself in Indiana politics well beyond her shocking upset of Bennett and could well have a second life in politics if she decides to run for another office.

Over her four years, Ritz emerged as an unexpectedly potent political player who often shrewdly outmaneuvered her foes.

Emails leaked from her office so embarrassed Bennett that he abruptly left his new job as education commissioner for the state of Florida, then was forced to pay a $5,000 fine for violating Indiana election law and the one-time national school reform darling all but disappeared from the political scene.

When she felt Republican political pressure went too far, she filed lawsuits against her fellow state board members and walked out of a state board meeting.

Efforts by Pence to work around Ritz also didn’t last.

For example, in 2013 he created the Center for Education and Career Innovation — which Ritz derided as a shadow organization to undermine the Ritz-led education department — in 2013 but then abandoned that effort and dismantled it a little more than a year later.

Even the legislature’s ballyhooed Republican effort to force Ritz out as the chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education was softened so it would not take effect until after her term ends in 2017.

Ironically, it’s McCormick, her Republican successor, who will have to live within the new confines of those changes.

For much of her term, Ritz was the most recognizable Democratic voice battling back against Republican policy ideas, and her fans loved her for it.

It’s not clear what’s next for Ritz. She hasn’t said anything about her future plans. She could simply go back to working in the classroom. At age 62, she could retire, as many educators her age do. But she’s also younger than both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so a return to politics is certainly not out of the question.

Whatever happens to Ritz though, teachers and her other supporters aren’t likely to embrace the Republican policies they’ve so strongly opposed. The question: Will a new leader emerge to lead the fight against them?

cause and effect

Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
City Year corps member doing service in a ninth-grade algebra classroom at Denver’s North High School. From left: student Alaya Martinez, corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina.

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year. President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools. “We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

Blue Engine teaching assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students with a project.

In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Project director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

'making american education great again'

Betsy DeVos, reportedly opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students, defends the changes

If Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposed rolling back protections for transgender students behind the scenes this week, she wasn’t letting it show Thursday when she spoke to many of the country’s staunchest conservatives.

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach, to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level,” DeVos said.

“I have made clear from the moment I have been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can,” she continued. “And also to provide students, parents, and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

The remarks, which DeVos made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, came the day after the Trump administration officials rescinded federal guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice. The New York Times reported that DeVos — who faced tough questions in her confirmation hearing about her support for gay rights — had opposed the changes, but lost a power struggle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

DeVos’s statement about the changes on Wednesday emphasized that she was committed to “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students.” States, districts, and schools that have established their own protections for transgender students will be able to continue to enforce those.

But some see the changes as an unnecessary blow to students vulnerable to bullying and whose rights to spaces like bathrooms aren’t specifically protected in many parts of the country.

“Supports for transgender students in K-12 schools change and save lives, and hurt no one,” Dr. Eliza Byard, the head of GLSEN, an advocacy group focused on the rights of gay students in schools, said in a statement.