Glenda Ritz began as Indiana’s schools chief four years ago, buoyed by the success of an unexpected win.
But at her Statehouse office on Friday afternoon — her last day — it was quiet.
Although her administration was marred by political battles with Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers, as well as snafus with state tests and the distribution of Title I funding, Ritz was consistently held up as a champion for teachers and public schools.
Ritz rose to power in 2012 after an upset over then-superintendent Tony Bennett. Her campaign garnered the support of a number of educators as well as strong backing from the state’s teachers unions. While she has remained popular in many education circles since then, her loss in November to Yorktown superintendent Jennifer McCormick came as a surprise to teachers, policymakers and community members throughout Indiana.
On Friday, she sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her time in office and her hopes for Indiana education in the future.
(This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)
What are your plans now that you’re leaving office?
I think you can expect me to still be in the public education space. I don’t think I want to put that out there at this time.
I probably will be spending my time really figuring out what it is I’m going to do. I’m not a person who sits around. I can’t sit around doing nothing.
Do you think you’ll stay in politics in some way?
Even before I was superintendent, I was very involved here at the statehouse. So the public should expect me to stay involved as a public school advocate, because that’s important to me. I don’t think I will venture to say what my political aspirations will be, if any, because I didn’t get involved in this job because of politics. I’m an educator. I care about education policy and students.
What is a specific moment that stands out to you at a school or with a teacher, student or parent?
The most fun welcome that I received was a rural school. Their entire band met me at the front door and played for me as I walked in. And I’ve gotten the red-carpet treatment at some schools — they really rolled out a red carpet!
I visited some schools where a (state) superintendent had never showed up.
You were relatively unknown statewide before you ran for office. What do you think made you such a popular figure to begin with?
I think they saw my passion for public education. I wasn’t unknown here (at the statehouse). Out the field, through my teachers association, I was known for that work. But I think people saw passion for public education, and they had a belief in their public school teachers.
So when (teachers) went and said to people they knew in their communities, “This is who we want to be superintendent,” they said, “OK, I’ll go and vote for her.” Even across party lines.
What sides of you as an educator or a leader do you think people didn’t get a chance to see?
Many couldn’t see past the politics of who I was to really engage in the conversations about education systems and how we need to put certain things in place to be sure we’re serving kids. And that was new for me because I’ve always been in an education space where I was highly regarded because of my intellect and my ability to problem solve and my ability to put things in place.
When I grade kids on a project, I don’t grade on the end product. I grade on the process along the way, and that’s what they get credit for. I don’t think people got to see that (from me). They wanted to just see the outcome, and they didn’t want the outcome necessarily to be positive. I don’t think people got to see all the work that the (Department of Education) did. They just wanted to put the political spin on it all the time.
What do you want to say that you haven’t been able to say before?
I don’t think we left things on the table. I don’t feel like I left anything unsaid.
Probably what you’ll hear me talk about more going forward, especially with the national scene, will be vouchers and school choice. I implemented that school choice through the department. I was implementing something I don’t believe in. (But the department carried it out) it with fidelity and with transparency.
Let the facts speak for themselves. I did not really engage in the conversation in the statehouse regarding school choice and vouchers. But you’ll see me in that space now.
Do you think the changes you’ve made at the Indiana Department of Education will be lasting ones? Why?
Yes. What I think I’ve done is change the expectation of schools. Schools now expect to be supported by the Department of Education — not just monitored, but supported. And even if the new superintendent changes the model in which she provides support, I feel the field and the schools will expect it of her.
I spent a great deal of time and found money to supply online reading for every family in the state of Indiana. We’ve had access to these online books for four years now. So hopefully that will continue.
What do you worry most about when you look at Indiana education going forward?
It’s individual students having access to the resources that they should, no matter where they live. And that it’s all about meeting their needs. But it’s individual students getting what they need that worries me. And that the adults who create the systems don’t really get down to that. Systems seem to be created for adults rather than children.
What do you think the biggest problem facing Indiana education is?
Politics. That’s pretty succinct. Politics. The General Assembly is gearing up to make this position appointed. I’m an educator, but (education) is the most important driver of your economy. Having a viable citizenry who are going to be able to go right into the workforce.
Not having continuity in your educational programming, or it being driven from a political point, will not be in the best interest of students. When superintendents are appointed by a political body, they are there for a political will, and they can be dismissed. They are beholden to no one. When you’re appointed position you don’t have any allegiance to anyone, and you can just leave or be told to leave.
I strongly feel that this position should always be elected. Education is one of those things that people should care most about and and should want to vote (for). If I had my druthers it would be an elected position and it would be nonpartisan.
Do you have any advice for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick?
I don’t know that I will leave her with advice. I wanted to have a very smooth transition, which was not afforded to me. I wanted to make sure that the operation of the schools was going to continue very smoothly when I left.
She’s a highly capable superintendent. She’s highly intelligent, so I hope that her focus is going to be on service to our schools and our students, and not the politics.
Do you have any regrets?
I wouldn’t call anything a regret. I would say sometimes you wish you’d taken this decision path, rather than this decision path, but no matter what decision path you take, it leads you to another one.
I don’t deal in what did happen, I deal in where are we going. And you’ll probably see that in anything that I do, that I’m always moving forward.