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?

BULLYING PREVENTION

Most Colorado school districts have updated their anti-bullying policies for LGBT students. Here’s why some have not.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students from Aurora's Rangeview High School ate lunch during a break at a weekend gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight youth. The annual event hosted by LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado focused on student leadership.

While many Colorado school districts have adopted explicit policies against bullying of gay and transgender students, some say singling out populations is not necessary to create a safe environment for marginalized students.

According to a report released Wednesday by One Colorado, the state’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, 82 percent of school districts statewide have revised their anti-bullying policies since 2011. That’s up from 37 percent in 2012, when the organization first examined school district policies.

The revisions followed the 2011 passage of a state law that prohibits bullying on the basis of a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill also included a program that provided funding to help schools update their policies.

Colorado’s legislation was considered a landmark at the time. Meanwhile, protections for LGBT students are coming into new national focus after President Donald Trump rescinded guidance on how schools should accommodate the needs of transgender students.  

Daniel Ramos, One Colorado’s executive director, said the organization worked with many school districts after the bill passed in 2011 to develop the proper language for updating policies.

One Colorado has received some pushback, however, from districts that find redrafting their guidelines unnecessary, he said.

“Some schools don’t believe that they have LGBTQ youth or LGBTQ people in their school districts,” Ramos said. “Regardless of whether you have LGBTQ people or LGBTQ families… having bullying policies that reflect actual or perceived identity is important in that it protects all students.”

Three school districts in the Denver area — Westminster, Aurora and Adams 14 — are listed as still not having updated their anti-bullying policies to comply with the law. The report also notes that the Douglas County School District has not updated its policies yet, but is in the process of doing so.

Most of the other Colorado school districts that have not updated their policies are small and rural.

The Westminster school board earlier this year passed a resolution stating that the district does not tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination, including discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

However, Ramos said the resolution doesn’t cut it. He said One Colorado was looking for an explicit anti-bullying policy.

Aurora includes language in its nondiscrimination policy that prohibits targeting students for a number of reasons, including sexual orientation — but does not enumerate that in its anti-bullying guidelines.

Ramos said it is important for districts to be explicit in prohibiting harassment based on specific aspects of a student’s identity in both the anti-bullying and nondiscrimination policies.

According to a report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, policies that explicitly protect LGBT students are more effective than those that do not.

“Just a general anti-bullying policy, one that says bullying is prohibited but doesn’t list any of the characteristics, is as effective as having no policy at all,” Ramos said.

Adams 14 also has policies that do not specifically list protected identities, said Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director for student services.

She said Adams 14’s school board is considering updates to all district policies, but the general language in the anti-bullying and nondiscrimination guidelines is meant to encompass all Adams 14 students.

The Commerce City school district also has rolled out new curriculum this year, aimed at increasing instruction based around practicing empathy for students with different identities and backgrounds, she said.

“Bullying applies to all people, whether we’re explicitly identifying that population or not,” Cini said. “I think we’re going to get a lot further (with social-emotional learning) than talking about what a policy is.”

Ramos said updating policy can be especially impactful for students in predominately Latino districts such as Adams 14.

“I myself, as a gay Latino male, know that I don’t just show up in public as either gay or as Latino or as male — I show up as all those things and then some,” he said. “For students to feel like they can bring their whole selves to school and talk about the experiences that they have as people of color, as LGBTQ folks, as male or female, that’s what we want young people to feel safe enough to able to bring to the classroom.”

basics

After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.