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May 13, 2013

Ritz on fast learning curve

New state schools chief fully immersed in her duties.

Indianapolis — For many occupants of the Indiana Statehouse, the week after the General Assembly wraps up its final frenzy of work is a quiet one. But not for Glenda Ritz.

Less than 48 hours after legislators passed the last bill of the 2013 session, the state’s public schools chief was standing in front of a bank of computer monitors watching in real time as thousands of test-taking children across Indiana were repeatedly kicked off line.

It was cause for concern: The lost computer connections of 30,000 students taking Indiana’s high-stakes, high-stress assessment test known as ISTEP+ marked the third straight year of problems with the private company, CTB/McGraw Hill, that has a $95 million, four-year contract with the state to administer the test.

But Ritz kept her cool, even as service interruptions continued into the next day, triggering delays, upping anxiety, and prompting some members of the Indiana Board of Education to deem the situation “disastrous.”

“There was no panic on my end,” said Ritz. The longtime teacher, versed in computer technology in her training as a school media specialist, focused her sights on finding a fix to get through the testing window.  

Then she turned to tougher questions – yet to be resolved – on whether the test results, once they come in, will be rendered invalid.

Ritz may be a novice on the job, but after four months in office she’s fully immersed in the duties of the state’s top school administrator, overseeing the state’s Department of Education and the 1,900-plus public schools that serve more than one million Indiana children.

“It’s a good fit,” is how she describes her new roll, after a career spent both as a classroom teacher and a devoted student of education policy.

Ritz’s surprise victory last November in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction was the big political story in the Statehouse. A longtime Republican voter, she’d never sought public office before deciding to run as a Democrat to unseat the Republican incumbent, Tony Bennett.

Though unknown and underfunded – her campaign war chest was one-tenth the size of Bennett’s -- she won the votes of 1.3 million Hoosiers, more than Republican Gov. Mike Pence garnered.

But she walked into a Statehouse controlled by Republicans who helped Bennett and his allies on the State Board of Education engineer a controversial overhaul of education policy.

Ritz still seems undaunted, convinced she can remove partisanship from the conversation about how to best educate Indiana’s children.

“I may have to deal with politics and political points of view, but in the long run, I don’t let that dissuade me,” Ritz said. “I am always going to be talking with people about the best way for things to happen in the classroom. And how on an upper level, a policy level, we really do affect that.”

Democrat Sen. Tim Skinner, a Ritz supporter from Terre Haute, said Ritz opponents have been waiting for her to stumble. “Everything she does in under a microscope,” Skinner said. “She has to feel like there is a 10,000-pound truck hanging over her head, ready to drop.”

Ritz acknowledges the pressure, but keeps it out her sight line. “I’m a very tenacious person,” she said.

Ritz saw her election as a “referendum” on the course of education set by Republicans who tied high-stakes testing like ISTEP to teacher pay, school funding, and student evaluation.

But her victory appears to have only slowed down the course, not reverse it.

The A-to-F grading system for schools, which Ritz says unfairly gives every school in the state a grade based on student test scores, is still in place. So is a make-or-break assessment test she opposes called IREAD-3, which third-graders must pass to go on to fourth grade.

So too is the state’s school voucher program, which Ritz fought as a plaintiff in a failed lawsuit before she was elected. In the session that ended in April, lawmakers voted to expand the voucher program to include more children.

Still, Ritz sees progress: Some Republicans leaders, especially those in the Senate, seemed willing to engage with her. Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, a key architect of the education overhaul she opposes, killed talk of making her post an appointed rather than elected office. He also turned an effort to gut her authority as chair of the State Board of Education.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley of Noblesville worked to change the A-to-F metrics, after hearing Ritz’s concerns. The changes didn’t get made but he helped clear the way for those metrics to be reviewed this summer.

“She was elected to a very important position. It’s important for us to work with her,” said Kenley, adding that he appreciates her efforts. “There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to improving education. We all need to grab a shovel and dig in.”

Much of the education overhaul under Bennett is locked into law, so can’t be undone by Ritz. But she can advocate for changes that fall within law. For example, she’s started a series of “study sessions” with the State Board of Education to see if there is a better way to assess the reading abilities of early grade students so they don’t end up failing the critical IREAD-3 test.

She’s also not ready to concede that the laws are that tightly locked into place.

“Laws are always meant to be changed,” Ritz said. “They get changed every session. Just because something is in law, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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