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Inside Crooked Creek Elementary School’s cafeteria, Glenda Ritz wielded a scalpel, in-structing about 100 fourth-graders in the art of dissecting a spiny dogfish shark. The smell of the dead specimens, spread out on metal trays on top of blue table covers, filled the air. It was a lesson she had delivered—and a procedure she’d performed—more than a dozen times throughout her 33-year teaching career.
Wearing a white lab smock and surgical gloves, Ritz sliced through the shark’s sandpapery, gray-brown flesh, peeling back its belly to reveal the animal’s innards, its large liver covered in bile. The macabre scene elicited groans from some students and squeals of delight from others.
“Just below the stomach, we have the intestines,” she explained to her pupils, who were gathered in small groups around tables across the room, supervised by parent volunteers. “Mine has a lot of digested food in it. It’s really thick.”
It was December, and a little more than a month had passed since the 58-year-old educator was elected as the state’s next superintendent of public instruction, buoyed by a grassroots campaign that generated approximately 1.3 million votes. She defeated deep-pocketed Republican Tony Bennett, a hard-charging education reformer with national recognition who had been funded by the likes of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (whose state has since named Bennett its education commissioner) and billionaire New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
As Ritz prepared to take the helm of the state’s Department of Education and its sprawling staff of some 200, she also addressed loose ends from her old life as the Crooked Creek library media specialist. The shark lesson was one of the last she would perform before taking office in a Statehouse ceremony January 19.
Dissecting a shark might be a delicate, messy, and tedious task—but no less so than the one Ritz faced post-election. After November 6, she not only had to navigate a hostile political landscape as one of the only Democrats elected to statewide office, but do so just as a package of some of the nation’s most sweeping and controversial education reforms (initiatives she campaigned against, but by law must now implement) were beginning to work their way through the state’s 292 school districts.
All the while, a cacophony of doubters beleaguered Ritz and her abilities before she had even set foot into office. Despite Ritz’s overwhelming number of votes, Governor Mike Pence said he believed Hoosiers wanted to go full speed ahead on Bennett’s brand of reform. The State Board of Education rejected Ritz’s input on teacher-licensing policy just weeks after her win. And former Governor Mitch Daniels even went so far as to question the legality of her campaign methods, alleging that union-affiliated teachers sent out campaign-related material on state time. Ritz, though, took it in stride. “I honestly haven’t had anything said about me that I would feel bothered by,” she says.
[CORE CONSTITUENTS] In seven of the nine Indy-centric counties, Tony Bennett outpaced Glenda Ritz, often by double-digit margins. But Ritz won Madison and Marion—with a landslide 62 percent of the vote in the latter— giving her the edge.[Votes by county sourced from the Indiana Secretary of State's Election Division]
There’s little doubt, though, that as her first weeks in office unfold, pupils, parents, teachers, administrators, and education-reform advocates will continue to watch Ritz’s every move with rapt curiosity: Can the teacher-turned-politician hold her own at the Statehouse? What will become of the controversial reforms—assigning A-through-F grades to schools, creating the nation’s largest voucher program, and mandating state takeovers of failing schools, including five former IPS locations—that her predecessor, Bennett, and Daniels rammed through the legislature in their final two years in office? And, more bluntly, is the relative political novice up for taking on those sharp-elbowed opponents intent on schooling her over the next four years?Born in Lafayette, Ritz grew up in a nonpolitical household, though she admits her parents leaned Republican. She graduated from Jefferson High School in 1972, and at Ball State she earned certifications in general and special education. It was also there that she met her husband, Gary, who currently owns Paragus, a local real-estate and construction-management firm. They married in 1977, moved to Carmel, and had two kids, Brandon and Phillip; along the way, Ritz pursued a pair of master’s degrees.
By all accounts, Ritz appears dedicated to her family. She and her husband have maintained a standing date night every Friday for 35 years (they typically go out for pizza, either Puccini’s or Three Wise Men Brewing Co.). “Her family always comes first,” says Roni Embry, an Indiana State Teachers Association representative, an educator for 20-plus years, and a friend of Ritz. “They’ve always made each other a priority.”
Despite her nonpolitical upbringing, Ritz volunteered for Democratic state representatives Ed DeLaney and David Orentlicher, as well as for various Washington Township school-board races. She also served as president of her local teachers’ association, representing its interests during contract talks. She did not officially register as a Democrat, though, until 2008, when she voted for Barack Obama in the primary, and has, in fact, cast her ballot in a number of Republican primaries.
After working on other campaigns, she decided last April to mount her own. Ritz, who calls herself a “late bloomer,” says she had become frustrated with the direction public education was headed in the state. Teachers had just administered the inaugural IREAD-3, a pass-fail assessment designed to measure reading ability through the third grade. She opposes the test, as well as ISTEP’s current format, arguing that the millions of dollars the state spends on the exams is in vain because the results don’t show how a student’s knowledge develops.
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