FORT WAYNE — Democrat Glenda Ritz might soon have the title of superintendent of public instruction, but Republicans in charge of the rest of state government have the power.
Just hours after Ritz’s surprising defeat of Tony Bennett, other elected officials made clear the teacher-turned-top education official will have to follow their lead.
Gov.-elect Mike Pence, for example, when asked who should decide education policy, said, “The people of Indiana are in charge” before noting “I’m pretty sure the buck stops right over there,” as he pointed to the desk in the governor’s office.
Gov. Mitch Daniels went further: “Not one word of those laws is going to be changed unless it’s extended further. There’s a board of education I appointed that the new superintendent reports to. Every one of them is pro-reform. And an idealistic pro-reform administration is coming in.”
So where does that leave Ritz?
Quite possibly with an even harder job than winning the office in the first place.
“She will really have to persevere and climb Mount Everest,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, a longtime member of the House Education Committee. “I hope she can bring people together for the good of the children in the state.”
Consider what Ritz gets with her win – a Republican governor wanting to continue the education overhaul movement; GOP supermajorities in the Indiana House and Senate; and a State Board of Education that, except for her, was appointed by Daniels.
Most of the initiatives she campaigned against – the current A-F school accountability rankings, ISTEP+ and the third-grade reading test – are in statute and can’t be unilaterally changed.
The Department of Education has rule-making ability to implement laws but generally only at the direction of the state board or the legislature.
And key Republicans apparently are looking to make the superintendent of public instruction an appointed position.
“That effort probably took a little bit of a hit on the chin with (the election) results,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said.
He said he already had discussions about the likelihood of moving this legislation in 2013, but now, “it might have the appearance” of Republican supermajorities using their power to eliminate a Democratic elected official.
Daniels included moving the position to a gubernatorial appointment in 2004 when he ran for office. But he never pushed the matter even with GOP majorities in both chambers.
“We’re in completely new water,” he said of having a superintendent of public instruction not of the same party that controls the legislature and holds the executive office. “This will be very interesting and novel.”
Ritz is taking everything in stride, noting she isn’t looking to completely repeal changes but is hoping for bipartisan cooperation in tweaking some of them.
“I think we are going to have more common ground than many people assume,” she said. “I am about the improvement of the education system.”
While the current situation may make Ritz’s power weak, it is not nonexistent.
Take that from former Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed, who came in as a Republican when Democrat Evan Bayh was governor. Also, during much of her tenure there was a Democratic-led House.
Reed worked so well with the other party that it was Republicans who pushed her out the door when Bennett decided to run.
“The powers aren’t just the things written down,” she said of the bully pulpit that comes with the office. “The persuasive nature of her conversations, her willingness to work things out.
“She knows the governor appointed the board, but their job is to do the best they can for the children in the state of Indiana and nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.”
While Ritz can’t pass a law or repeal a law, she does implement bills put into statute through the administrative rule-making process.
For instance, while A-F grades for schools will still exist under Ritz, she can push to change the rubric used to assign the grades within the department, including how growth on testing is counted.
Or consider the reading test for third-graders. The legislature mandated a test, but it was Bennett’s recommendation – not lawmakers’ – to the state board to hold kids back who don’t pass.
State board member Michael Pettibone, also superintendent at Adams Central Schools, said the board listens to the superintendent and Department of Education staff, and he doesn’t think the board members will shut her down completely.
“If you have another person coming forward with ideas after you have built some trust I don’t think there will be a continuous wall,” he said.
Pettibone anticipates a pause in education reform action, “and that’s not all bad.”
Probably the most important thing Ritz has on her side is a large staff.
“The power of having a staff and all the information, as well as cooperation of the superintendents and teachers across the state, can’t be overstated,” Reed said. “The information she has is trustworthy. It’s the source that people go to for the facts.”
And that includes lawmakers, who will have to rely on the Department of Education to help craft bills.
Ritz plans to start with reorganizing her agency to have outreach coordinators and put in place a bottoms-up support system for schools. She also will have summits to talk to districts and mayors and parents.
“We can have a fair education system,” she said.