Republican leaders at the statehouse were wary of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz from the moment she defeated Tony Bennett last November to become the only Democrat holding statewide office, and the simmering tension has exploded over the last month.
But it wasn’t that long ago Ritz was winning accolades for charming some Republican legislative leaders and pledging to work cooperatively on issues where they had common interests.
Ritz’s ability to get anything done from her own agenda depends on her ability to make common cause with Republicans, who control all other education policy-making bodies — both houses of the legislature, the governor’s office and a majority on the Indiana State Board of Education. So the recent fallout makes her job tougher and raises questions about whether she can accomplish any of her policy goals.
Over the course of nine months in office, her political scorecard looks better than might be expected. Still, early wins have turned to something of a losing streak of late. The latest battle could be a make-or-break moment for Ritz’s term in office, as it comes down to the question of who sets the policy agenda for the education department, going forward.
Here’s a look back:
THE GOOD DAYS
It might surprise some people to learn Ritz started her terms with a string of relatively positive outcomes for her in dealing with the Republicans. Among them:
Ritz joins forces with the new governor
Date: Jan. 25
Action: Ritz endorsed Gov. Mike Pence’s plan to create new councils aimed at improving vocational education.
Result: She found an early opportunity to link arms with the new governor and show a bipartisan spirit. This helped reduce suspicion and build early trust with other Republican legislators.
Deal with the mayor helps on takeover schools
Date: Feb. 6
Action: The Indiana State Board of Education handed off oversight of four state takeover schools to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard.
Result: After campaigning against state takeover, the move helped Ritz avoid the awkward position of overseeing takeovers herself. It took early pressure off her relationship with the rest of the state board, which was very committed to the takeover process.
An effort to change her role with vouchers is dropped
Date: Feb. 22
Action: When some Republican lawmakers launched an effort to move oversight of the state voucher program under Pence’s office and force her to share decision-making authority with the education roundtable, she fought the bill.
Result: After extracting promises from Ritz that she would faithfully administer the voucher program, House Republican leaders dropped the bill, avoiding new limits to her power.
Ritz-supported Common Core language prevails
Date: Feb. 26
Action: Early on, Ritz endorsed Senate language to hold public hearings on Common Core standards and allow the state to reconsider if it wanted to stick with them. She opposed a House bill that would have explicitly kept Common Core implementation moving as scheduled.
Result: The final version was closer to the language Ritz endorsed, which helped her make allies with some Senate Republicans on the issue.
Agenda stays on course after objections
Date: Oct. 2
Action: During a state board meeting, Ritz reacts to calls to change the agenda by overruling them and denying motions to vote on the question.
Result: Board members Dan Elsener and Tony Walker were enraged but the agenda continues as Ritz had planned. For the moment, Ritz prevailed although simmering anger on the board led to private conversations among board members about how to work around her.
THE BAD DAYS
Ritz’s relations with Republicans really only began to hit the skids in the last 90 days, as Tony Bennett supporters directed considerable anger her way in the wake of Bennett’s e-mail controversy. Here are some of the low points for Ritz in her term so far:
Tweet offends a key Republican
Date: Feb. 20
Action: Ritz’s campaign Twitter account, @Ritz4Ed, posts a tweet disparaging Republican House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning for a 2011 personal dispute that resulted when he sold Yorkshire puppies through a classified ad.
Result: Ritz’s explanation that she did not oversee the account and couldn’t control its content, and lack of any apology, angered Behning, chilling their already frosty relationship further. The account continues to post political commentary.
Late legislative changes bring surprises
Date: April 29
Action: A Senate bill to overhaul A to F school grading that Ritz pushed for died on the final week of the legislative session. Meanwhile language approved by the legislature in its final days gave Pence new funding latitude that allowed him later to create the new Center for Education and Career Innovation under Pence’s authority with greater control over the Indiana State Board of Education and its budget.
Result: When Ritz supporters realized Pence’s new role in education policy is larger than expected, they cried foul and accused Pence of a power grab.
Reading test proposal gets tabled
Date: July 19
Action: Before Ritz could even present her plan for overhauling IREAD3, the state’s third grade reading exam, she was interrupted by state board members Dan Elsener and Tony Walker, whose motion to table the plan quickly passed.
Result: Ritz plan to change the exam from pass-fall to one that establishes numerical reading levels remains shelved more than 90 days later.
Bennett e-mails explode in controversy
Date: July 29
Action: Emails released by Ritz’s office to media outlets following public records requests sparked a controversy over whether her predecessor, Tony Bennett, reworked the A to F system to benefit a favored charter school. Bennett resigned soon after as the top education official in Florida.
Result: Ritz said little about the controversy but her supporters loudly rejoiced at Bennett’s demise. A pair of Republican-appointed consultants later reviewed the case against Bennett and declared the A to F system valid. His supporters took aim at Ritz, arguing her actions unfairly marred Bennett’s tenure. But the bottom line was Ritz’s arch rival Bennett was vanquished and some of his policies discredited.
State board members go to the legislature
Date: Oct. 18
Action: While Ritz was traveling overseas, the remaining 10 state board members signed and delivered a letter to legislative leaders asking them to direct the Legislative Service Agency to calculate A to F grades, insinuating Ritz was dragging her feet on issuing the grades.
Result: Ritz was again boxed in politically and her supporters again accused Republican leaders of circumventing the will of the voters by working around Ritz rather than with her.
With her recent public battle with the state board, a lot of observers are wondering what happens next. The next state board meeting on Nov. 8 could bring new fireworks, as the 11 board members try to move forward with the state’s education policy business amid a lot of hard feelings.
Ritz files suit
Date: Oct 22
Action: Ritz filed suit against the rest of the state board, alleging the letter to legislators resulted from board deliberations and a decision all conducted outside of an open public meeting in violation of state law.
Result: Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a quick opinion that the suit is invalid and Ritz countered with a court filing reasserting her right to sue. If she loses, her position could be considerably weakened. But a court victory might strengthen her hand as she tries to reset her relationship with the board and get back to business.