By Ellie Price
INDIANAPOLIS –Glenda Ritz rallied teachers last month to help her become the first Democrat in decades to win the state superintendent of public instruction race and now those educators are looking to her for help and public policy changes.
Democrat Glenda Ritz – the incoming state superintendent of public instruction – talks last month with lobbyists in the hallway at the Indiana Statehouse. She had just finished a meeting with House minority leaders. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
Ritz, who defeated Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, will take office in January.
“For a Republican in Indiana to be voted out of office, that definitely shows that shows that there was a grassroots effort on the part of teachers,” said Sarah Verpooten, a journalism adviser at Lake Central High School in Saint John.
The win came in part because of frustration with big changes that Bennett made in during his four years as the state superintendent.
He pushed for new laws and rule changes restricting teachers’ bargaining rights to salary and benefits only, assigning A-F letter grades to schools, creating a private school voucher program and implementing merit-based pay for teachers. Many teachers say that not all of those laws are working in best interests of students.
“I think what the teachers said and what the voters said is that we really want a lot of Tony Bennett’s actual reform to be taken away,” said Sarah Snider, a U.S. history teacher and journalism and newspaper adviser at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis.
Snider said she opposes Indiana’s new “growth model,” which is meant to using standardized tests to measure how students are improving from year to year. The Indiana Department of Education assigns A-F letter grades to public and accredited non-public schools based on that improvement from the previous year.
Snider said the law consists of “arbitrary” guidelines for the teachers and does not benefit students.
“I think Glenda Ritz, being a teacher, could hopefully put something in place that would definitely keep and hold teachers accountable, because we do want that,” Snider said. “But at the same time, I think all of these reforms need to keep students in mind – what’s really going to increase rigor in schools and not just make it seem like we’re dumbing it down or giving away grades.”
Amanda Ramirez, a Japanese teacher at Avon High School in Hendricks County said teachers need a new kind of evaluation system.
“I have no problem with being observed in my classroom,” Ramirez said. “But the implementation of the new evaluation tools causes a lot of extra stress. A lot of teachers feel demoralized by the things we’ve read or seen on TV that Tony Bennett has said about teachers.”
Bennett has proposed rules that would ease requirements for receiving a teaching license in Indiana. College graduates could obtain a license by passing a standardized test without taking education courses. A licensed teacher could become certified to teach in a different area by passing a test. State officials say the proposal would give flexibility to the schools to hire effective teachers who have not studied education.
Verpooten said she hopes Ritz will continue to challenge Bennett’s proposal.
“It’s counter-intuitive to me that at the same time that we’re being told teachers aren’t good enough and don’t work hard enough, anyone can become a teacher as long as they fill out the right paperwork,” Verpooten said. “This doesn’t make sense to me. Why are we lowering standards to become a teacher when obviously Tony Bennett didn’t that teachers were qualified?”
Ramirez said she is looking forward to Ritz listening to teachers’ opinions and using her experience as an education during her term.
“I really think that teachers in this state need a big morale boost because we’ve felt kind of stomped on the past couple of years,” Ramirez said.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis who has backed the new education policies, recently reached out to teachers, saying that he believes they are underpaid and underappreciated.
But Bosma and Gov.-elect Mike Pence, also a Republican, have said that they have no plans to rescind any of the recently-passed education laws and want to push forward with what they say are important school reforms.
Snider, the teacher at Franklin Central, said she’s not sure how much those Republicans – who have control of both the Indiana House and Senate – will let the new Democrat superintendent accomplish.
“On one hand, I think it’s really exciting to have someone in there who’s a teacher and not a politician,” Snider said. “But on the other hand, I think it can be hard for people to get into politics and really understand right away how it works. I wonder if she will really be able to get things done. I hope she will, but I am concerned Pence is going to have her under his thumb.”
Ritz, who lives in Carmel and has been a teacher and librarian at Crooked Creek Elementary in Indianapolis, said she’s confident she can work with Republicans and accomplish some changes simply through the Department of Education’s administration of current laws.
And she said she’s got a sense of what teachers want her to do.
“I think one of the first things they want me to do is relieve the stress in the classroom,” Ritz said. “They want to be able to have more time for educating the students and less time on the testing.”
She said changes to the state’s high-stakes testing program and to the state curriculum are going to be top on her list of priorities “to make sure we’re on the right path for what we’re going to do with kids.”
Verpooten of Lake Central said she’s sure Ritz will be able to apply her experiences of working with uncooperative students to politics. She compared the challenges of Ritz working with Republicans to the difficulties teachers face daily.
“Every day we walk in the classroom, we deal with kids who want to do other things besides be there,” Verpooten said. “It’s just part of being a teacher – getting people to understand your position and know where things should be going and getting them to cooperate and come along with you.”
Ellie Price is a reporter with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.