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October 21, 2012

Campaigning to lead state schools

Candidates have starkly different visions

INDIANAPOLIS — Glenda Ritz and Tony Bennett are both longtime educators, but how they see the sweeping changes in Indiana schools and classrooms couldn’t be more different.

The Republican Bennett has spent the past four years as the state’s superintendent of public instruction championing those changes.

They include GOP-backed legislation that expanded charter schools and created the nation’s largest school voucher program, created a merit pay system that ties teacher pay and tenure to student performance, imposed more high-stakes testing for grade promotion and graduation and created an A-to-F evaluation system to grade the effectiveness of schools.

Running for his second term, Bennett lauds those changes as cutting-edge reforms that make Indiana the model for the nation. And he’s called for even more.

“Why now would we want to slow down?” he asks.

The Democrat Ritz cites the very things Bennett hails as the reasons why she decided to run against him, with support from the state’s teachers unions.

She objects to the major changes individually; for example, calling the new 3rd-grade reading assessment test both harmful and “heart-breaking” for students who fail it and risk being held back a grade. But she also sees the changes as a collective effort to undermine public education, set public teachers up for failure and lay the groundwork, she said, to “privatize schools.”

“All this legislative action has gone through so quickly with no barriers, and no understanding of the awful consequences,” Ritz said. “I really feel like teachers, kids, parents and communities have been caught in the middle of a political agenda.”

Bennett and Ritz differ on substance, but also in style.

Ritz, 58, of Indianapolis has been a classroom teacher for 33 years. The mild-mannered mother of two thinks teachers have been left out of the process of education reform and demonized by reform advocates. She was a longtime Republican who left the party when Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels began pushing hard for the education changes that have been put into place.

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