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Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, the lone Democratic statewide officeholder, has found common ground with Republicans.

A student-first focus

If you think state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz is battered and worn after just eight weeks in office, think again. The politics swirling around the only Democratic statewide official haven’t bruised her at all.

Ritz, who handily defeated incumbent Tony Bennett in spite of a huge fundraising disadvantage, might be feeling some heat from lawmakers unhappy with the election, but she’s focused on students and moving ahead. It’s an approach all legislators would be wise to follow. Indiana voters sent a clear message that they want an educator, not a politician, setting the state’s school policy.

Ritz, a National Board-certified teacher and media specialist, was in Fort Wayne late last month to speak to about 90 public education supporters from Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. In an interview, she said the political distractions have been exaggerated but acknowledged some lawmakers were determined to limit her authority.

“There are two factions in the Republican Party – and they are duking it out,” she said. “It is politics, truly. They are upset that Tony lost, and they are going to march on, and the others are going, ‘No, let it die, because we are going to be about education here.’ ”

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, is among the latter group. As chairman of the Senate’s education committee, he warned early on that he would not entertain bills to limit Ritz’s power. Kruse and Ritz were acquainted before she was elected. They had a good working relationship hammering out details in legislation in previous sessions.

Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence also have gotten off to a positive start, with the governor’s influence apparent last month in squelching a move to switch school voucher oversight from the Department of Education to the Office of Management and Budget. Pence’s office originally testified in support of the switch, but the measure died when Ritz assured the administration she is doing and will do what’s necessary to carry out state law, regardless of her own views on the taxpayer-funded voucher program.

The superintendent also is enthusiastic about discussions she and Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann have had to individualize math instruction for Indiana students.

“She’s brilliant!” Ritz said of the lieutenant governor, who holds a doctoral degree in industrial engineering.

It’s student-level discussions that the new superintendent is most enthusiastic about. She’s eager to push early childhood education initiatives and is preparing to launch a statewide literacy initiative.

“We are really going to be out there talking about family literacy,” she said. “I think everyone is going to be shocked about how widespread the network is going to be to make sure our kids are getting what they need. Not just kids, but adults, too. We have been growing, unfortunately, the number of illiterate adults in Indiana. It’s a sad state of affairs.”

Ritz said she is addressing the ill-considered IRead-3 law, which requires all third-graders to pass a reading test before they are promoted, through the rules-making process. She’s also addressing concerns about the teacher evaluation law by reminding school districts that they aren’t required to use the RISE model created by the state but can develop their own evaluation systems.

If she is attempting to improve, but not undo, some recent school laws, Ritz also is open to changes. The Education Roundtable, she said, might have outlived its usefulness as a policy incubator, and she’s also supportive of the governor’s plan for a preschool through career workforce development council. Ritz wants all parties – K-12, higher education and workforce development – to have a say in the discussions, then go back to their own areas and “make it happen.”

“I would like for it to be very collaborative and apolitical. There was such a strong message sent with my election,” she said. “It’s not partisan, so let’s not make it that. Let’s really focus on education.”

Lawmakers? It’s your move.