The basics of Glenda Ritz: A lone voice at the top against Republican education agenda

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Glenda Ritz’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Jennifer McCormick, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

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In one whirlwind year, Glenda Ritz went from a political unknown, working as a library media specialist in Indianapolis’ Washington Township, to a stunning 2012 election victory over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett. In the process, she became perhaps the state’s best-known Democratic officeholder.

Her win over Bennett was one of the most shocking Indiana political upsets in recent memory. She defeated the high profile and well funded Bennett, known nationally as a champion of school accountability and school choice, by skillfully rallying discontented educators and their friends and family.

The win also thrust her into a pitched political battle over control of education policy at the statehouse. Ritz took office in 2013 as the only Democrat in a statewide elected post in Indiana, and is now the highest profile skeptic of a series of Republican-led reforms instituted in the state since 2010.

But since taking office, Ritz’s efforts to put in place policies she prefers, especially regarding testing and accountability, have mostly been thwarted. Tension between Ritz and the Indiana State Board of Education deteriorated into a struggle for control of the state board meetings in late 2013.

Increasingly, Ritz has blamed Gov. Mike Pence for her political woes and he has returned fire by criticizing her handling of key issues, such as testing and school accountability.

A highly rated teacher

Ritz, was one of only 155 national board certified teachers in Indiana when she ran for office. That is a challenging credential awarded to applicants who demonstrate high quality teaching through a variety of tasks. Indiana has fewer national board certified teachers than any of the states that border it, with thousands fewer than Illinois and Ohio.

Ritz also served on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which awards national board certification to teachers. She has two masters degrees in education and is certified to teach at all grade levels and in special education. She has been named teacher of the year at two different schools.

Age 58 at the time of her election, Ritz was born and raised in Lafayette, Ind. and graduated from Ball State University, moving to Indianapolis after marrying Gary Ritz. They have two adult sons.

It was the institution of Indiana’s third grade reading requirement, a priority for Bennett, that spurred Ritz to enter the race, she said. Ritz said she opposed the Bennett-led change to require children to pass a standardized test or potentially be blocked from advancing to fourth grade. Instead, Ritz advocated for overhauling state English tests so they could be used to determine each child’s reading level, information she argued was more useful to teachers to guide students toward proficiency.

A union leader

Ritz also was active in Washington Township’s teachers union, serving as president for 15 years. In that role, she helped negotiate pay raises, benefits and working conditions with the school administration and had authority over the the local union’s managerial functions, such as dues collection and organizing.

During that period, Ritz also served on the board of the Indiana State Teachers Association, her union’s statewide organization. ISTA is affiliated with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and struggled through major financial woes during the period Ritz was on the board. Ritz was a resource for ISTA on teacher quality issues. In 2011, she spoke publicly against over reliance on test scores as a factor in teacher evaluation. As the state legislature worked on a bill overhauling evaluation that year, Ritz represented ISTA in talks with legislators.

She estimated she spend more than 150 hours working with lawmakers on language that established four levels of teacher performance. The final bill included test scores as a factor in evaluation but did not require a teacher’s student test results to count for a specific percentage of the teacher’s rating. Other states required as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s rating to based on student test scores. Indiana left the percentage up to each school district to decide.

Ritz also signed on as a plaintiff for an ISTA-supported unsuccessful lawsuit charging school vouchers were unconstitutional. The Indiana Supreme Court ultimately disagreed and upheld the voucher program.

The campaign

Ritz first emerged as Bennett’s opponent in June of 2012, when she was selected as the Democratic candidate at the party’s state convention. By then, Bennett had already built a huge money advantage in the race, one that would persist through the election. By Election Day, Ritz had raised about $350,000, with ISTA as her largest single contributor. Bennett out raised her by $1.5 million.

With limited dollars, the Ritz campaign depended heavily on building support through word-of-mouth and social media. Teachers, especially union members, who supported her reached out to their personal and online networks, urging friends, family and acquaintances to vote for her. The campaign made skillful use of social media, posting regularly on Facebook and Twitter about her effort to defeat Bennett and calling on supporters to spread the word online.

David Dresslar, executive director of the University of Indianapolis’ Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning, called it “one of the first successful Facebook campaigns in Indiana.” On Election Day, Ritz earned 52 percent with 1.3 million votes, more than any other candidate on the ballot in any race received, including Pence, the newly elected Republican governor.

Democrats and opponents of Bennett were euphoric to have a major victory, and to have dealt defeat to an education reform movement some viewed as anti-teacher. But getting Indiana to change direction from the policies it had pursued for eight years under former Gov. Mitch Daniels would prove even more challenging.

Taking on Bennett

In July of 2013, emails provided by the Indiana Department of Education to reporters led to explosive accusations that Bennett had manipulated the new rules for Indiana’s A to F school grading system to improve the grade of a favored charter school. The school, Christel House Academy, had a string of A grades but was poised to fall to a C under a new calculation method Bennett championed. The schools founder, Christel DeHaan, had contributed to Bennett’s campaign in the past.

Emails showed he raised concerns and asked for a review. Staffers sprang into action, discussing a variety of ways to improve Christel House’s grade. Ultimately, they focused on the school’s odd grade configuration — serving grades K to 10. Ultimately they ruled that some of the high school measures that make up a school’s grade could be dropped out of the calculation for schools that do not have all four high school grades. The change raised grades for Christel House and 12 other schools statewide.

Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, later revealed himself to be the person who discovered and looked through the old emails, which Bennett staffers believed had been deleted. He acknowledged telling a reporter about the emails but said it was journalists who ultimately used public record law to unearth them and reveal their contents.

In the immediate wake of the email revelations, Bennett resigned from his new job as the education commissioner in Florida. Republican-appointed consultants who reviewed Bennett’s actions for the Indiana legislature later ruled the Christel House change “plausible,” prompting Bennett supporters to blame Ritz for unfairly tarring his reputation. But soon after, the Indiana’s ethics commission brought charges against Bennett for using his state office for campaign purposes, based on the email revelations.

In the end, Bennett was found guilty of violating state ethics laws prohibiting the use of public resources for political campaigns and paid a $5,000 fine.

Managing a challenge

After some early victories working with Republicans, including Pence, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and legislative leaders, Ritz has found managing the politics of her position increasingly difficult. The final 2013 state budget, approved by the legislature in April, gave Pence more latitude to manage state education funds, which allowed him in August to create the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

The center, using money that had previously been managed by the education department under the state superintendent, hired separate staff for the Indiana State Board of Education. Pence said the center was designed to coordinate education policy across multiple agencies, including the education department, the state board, the Education Roundtable and the Commission for Higher Education.

But Ritz said it was a power grab.

Tensions were raised among Ritz and state board, as board members used their new staff to propose agenda items and policies that Ritz objected to. Sometimes she angered other board members by using her procedural power as chairwoman to block votes on some agenda items.

Ritz even sued the rest of the board in October of 2013, arguing the other board members violated state transparency laws when they sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking for their help to calculate school A to F grades without discussing it publicly. A judge tossed out the suit because Ritz filed it without Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s assistance.

In November of 2013, the political battle reached a new height when Ritz ended and walked out of a school board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion by board member Brad Oliver. She said she feared the motion would give CECI control over a process to revise A to F grading, which she believed fell under her purview.

In December of 2013, the board met with Chris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, seeking to end their conflicts. In their last meeting of the year, they made minor changes to their own rules, including the process for how items can be placed on the agenda.

Standards, NCLB and more tension
In 2014, Ritz was at the center of several key education debates in Indiana.

Early in the year, Ritz found an unlikely ally in Pence on a critical issue: state academic standards. Indiana adopted Common Core standards in 2010, part of a group that included 46 total states, and began implementing them in grades K to 2. But in 2013, lawmakers passed a bill calling for a reconsideration of what Indiana’s standards should be. In 2014, the legislature voided the decision to adopt Common Core and ordered new standards written.

Ritz and Pence both favored the idea, believing Indiana was better off with its own standards. Ritz led the creation of new standards, which were blessed by Pence and passed by the Education Roundtable and the state board in April.

But the good feelings were short lived. A new controversy soon put Pence and Ritz at odds again.

In May, the U.S. Department of Education sent Ritz a letter demanding she explain how Indiana would keep promises it made in 2012 to make changes to state policy in return for release from some sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Federal officials wanted to know how Indiana’s new standards and new tests would qualify as “college and career ready,” and also asked for evidence the state was adequately monitoring its lowest rated schools.

Ritz and Pence traded jabs about whether she had dropped the ball on monitoring. The state did earn an extension of the waiver, but Ritz remains at odds with Pence and state board members over those and other issues.

A run for governor

In 2015, Pence’s move to take on Ritz directly, by challenging her authority to lead the state board with the aide of the legislature, was the final straw, Ritz said. But the campaign didn’t last.

On June 4, Ritz is expected to announce a run for the Democratic nomination for governor, potentially setting up a direct show down with Pence.

The latest battle began when Pence made a dramatic move: he announced suddenly late last year that he planned to dissolve CECI. But there was a catch. He also asked Ritz to give up her seat as chair of the state board

The 2015 legislature pushed ahead with that idea, advancing bills that would remove the guarantee in state law that the superintendent must chair the state board, allowing a vote of the board members that effectively would remove Ritz as chair.

After a long battle, Pence got the legislature to approve the change, but not until 2017. Ritz complained other bills that gave the state board new powers over policies she previously controlled left her little choice but to consider a run against Pence.

After a month of weighing the possibilities, Ritz announced she, indeed, would be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. The campaign lasted just 10 weeks.

Instead, she announced her plans to run for re-election as state superintendent in 2016.

-Updated November 2016