INDIANAPOLIS — Democrat Glenda Ritz won the race for the state’s schools superintendent by challenging the education overhaul implemented by the Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, but her power to stop the sweeping changes in Indiana schools may be limited.
The big measures put into place over the last two years – merit pay for teachers, the takeover of failing schools, more high-stakes testing, vouchers for private schools and more – were locked into law by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
And the rule-making for implementing those laws, and the dispersing of state dollars to local schools, rests not with the office that Ritz won Tuesday, but with the State Board of Education, whose next batch of members will be appointed by a Republican governor.
Ritz sees her victory as a mandate for change: The political newcomer was outspent by her opponent by more than $1 million and yet won more votes than governor-elect Mike Pence.
“The voters were loud and clear,” Ritz said Thursday, as she was getting ready to leave for Washington, D.C. to attend a national meeting of educators. “This was a referendum on education on Indiana; it wasn’t really about Tony Bennett.”
But Republicans leaders in the Statehouse have decided not to see it, or least not publicly portray it that way.
In separate press conferences the day after Ritz won, both Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma tried to trump Ritz by citing their own numbers: Voters not only put the pro-reform Pence into office, but gave the GOP the supermajority control of both chambers – which means not a single Democrat is needed to conduct legislative business.
“The message I received from that wasn’t a ‘whoa,’ ” said Bosma. Instead, he said, it was a message to keep moving forward on education reform.
But some lawmakers are hearing a slightly different message from the vote, and reading it as sign that they may need to do some more listening to voters’ fears and worries about the big and fast changes they’ve imposed.