By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
For teacher Crystal Bramel and her 9-year-old son, watching Tuesday’s election was more fun than watching the Super Bowl.
The mother-son pair was glued to the television, eagerly waiting for the winner of the state superintendent of public instruction race to be announced.
They were yelling and cheering for Democratic hopeful Glenda Ritz, said Bramel, an Eastern High School special education teacher.
Her son fell asleep before news outlets reported a winner. She tried to do the same.
“I tried to go to sleep thinking I would just get the final results in the morning, but I was too excited to sleep,” Bramel said.
In the end, Republican incumbent Tony Bennett was beat out by Ritz, a lifelong educator backed by teachers like Bramel who were unhappy with Bennett’s sweeping education overhaul.
On Wednesday morning, Bramel woke her son up to deliver the good news.
“We did it,” she told him.
Bramel had joined forces with teachers across the state to campaign for Ritz. The Eastern educator wrote post cards, talked to friends, families and acquaintances, and made regular posts on social media sites like Facebook to spread the word. And for the first time ever, she gave money to a political campaign.
“I really stepped out of my comfort zone for the sake of public education,” Bramel said.
In the last month before the election, Bramel said she spent several hours campaigning for Ritz, and her efforts were small compared to that of others.
Ritz’s win came from a true grassroots movement, she said.
It was like David beating Goliath.
“You were looking at a man with an infinite amount of money and a woman with nothing but a cause,” said Dan Robinson, teachers association president for Northwestern School Corp.
Upset teachers, parents and administrators who felt they were being attacked from all sides were the ones funding her campaign $5 and $10 at a time, Robinson said.
They were tired of the sweeping reform Bennett was forcing on them, he said.
His one-size-fits-all approach to reform doesn’t work, Robinson said.
The result of that is a flawed A to F grading system for schools that’s vague and doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening inside those schools, Robinson said.
“What are you saying if a school is a D?” he asked. “Does it mean every teacher is a D? Does it mean no one is succeeding?”
Bramel has a problem with the standardized tests largely used to determine those grades.
“As a teacher, but more importantly as a parent, I want to end the practice of viewing students simply as test scores,” she said. “My kids, the ones in my classroom and my own, have so much more to offer the world than a single test score on a given day.”
Ritz pledged to roll back many of Bennett’s changes, including a reading test that third-graders must pass to advance to fourth grade, The Associated Press reported.
“I think the voters have been really clear that we want an education agenda, not a political agenda for our kids,” she said.
Whether Ritz will be able to make those changes is still unclear.
She will face a Republican governor and Republican-dominated House of Representatives and Senate that might try to move forward with Bennett’s agenda.
Robinson said that could tie Ritz’s hands a little bit, but if that happens, her supporters will be there to flood their senators and representatives with calls and emails.
It won’t be easy.
“She’s got a long, hard road ahead of her,” Robinson said. “She’s got to convince some people of some things.”
Educators were hoping the election would provide some balance in the legislature, but that didn’t happen, Robinson said.
“The legislators are too involved in education,” he said. “We have legislators who think it’s their job to tell us how to do our jobs.”
Educators won’t let the obstacles Ritz is likely to face dampen their post-election celebrations, though.
It was a happy day, Robinson said.
“For one day, a small group of people made a difference despite all odds,” he said.
Ritz’s victory has sparked hope in educators from all corners of the state.
“For the first time in a long time, I believe teachers feel as though they have a voice and their profession is respected,” Bramel said. “This wasn’t just a victory for teachers. More importantly, it was a victory for students and public education.”