Matt Mikus: Only statewide Dem officeholder not playing politics
We’re now two weeks into Glenda Ritz’s term, and even though she is the only statewide elected Democrat in Indianapolis, lawmakers in the Statehouse are starting to warm to the new Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Here’s Ritz’s secret. She’s not playing partisan politics.
Education policy is determined between the General Assembly, which sets the funding, accountability measures, and laws on curriculum requirements. The Department of Education then sets the rules to follow the laws, supervised by the Indiana Board of Education, made of 10 appointed members and Ritz.
After her victory over Tony Bennett, speculation arose throughout Indiana that Ritz would walk into the Statehouse, pack all the education reforms in a box and ship them to Florida.
Instead of taking a firm stance on major issues, she’s approaching them with flexibility, often looking to make more informed decisions. During a hearing on the Common Core curriculum, she stressed the state should hold off on fully implementing the national curriculum standard to see if it would work well for Indiana.
“That has been her message from the beginning,” said David Galvin, Ritz’s Director of Communication. “Now it seems to be resonating well with the members of the other party.”
She also has a flexible stance with charter schools, but would prefer to see more local control for school corporations.
By focusing on gathering information and having open, informed conversations, instead of jumping on to party bandwagons, Ritz is starting to gain support from across the aisle.
Two key Republican lawmakers have warmed to Ritz, allowing her a little more freedom to work. Last week, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, announced that his Education and Career Advancement Committee would not hear any bills that take away from her office’s responsibilities.
And after talking to Sen. Luke Kenley, he said in an article in the News and Tribune that his skepticism about Ritz has changed, sharing similar concerns on issues such as the A-F grading system for schools and a second look at teacher evaluations that tie teachers pay and tenure to student achievement.
This week, Gov. Mike Pence and Ritz met to talk about vocational education and a potential literacy program for students and adults in the state that could launch in the summer.
That’s a far cry from the first day of Pence’s Inauguration day, when he signed an executive order moving the supervision of Indiana Education Employment Relations Board from the superintendent’s job requirement’s to the governor’s.
One initiative the superintendent wants to work on is a “bottom-up” approach to regulating schools, said Galvin, by establishing regional coordinators to identify issues locally.
“The people living in the community know what their schools need,” he said, “It’s impossible for us in Indianapolis to figure out what’s needed for the schools in Gary or Fort Wayne.
“When you have a consensus, you can do a lot of good. It’s when you stop listening and think you have the better ideas, that’s when things go awry.”
It could be argued that Ritz’s only option is to play nice with the General Assembly and the Board of Education from the Mitch Daniels-era. But all signs are pointing to Ritz embracing that approach, instead of being hesitant about working with others in Indianapolis.