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?

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”