Profile: Glenda Ritz Doesn't Want to Hear It!

With all the noise surrounding the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, will her agenda of slowing down reforms advance? Or is her voice—and those of her supporters—bound to get drowned out?

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.

Reading, she says, isn’t best taught by testing. If a student who is falling behind fails the exam, he or she has an even tougher road ahead. “Research will show that once a child’s been retained twice—18 as a sophomore in high school—they typically do not finish high school. There are your dropouts,” she says of Indiana’s 85.7 percent graduation rate. “I really [feel] that the state of Indiana [is] … telling little 8- and 9-year-olds that ‘you’re failures now,’ and that’s not how we should be teaching.”

For Ritz, IREAD-3 underscored the problem with Bennett’s tougher approach to accountability—and crystallized her case for taking him on. “The last four years had been so negative,” she said, as she picked at a plate of tilapia at Palomino downtown, a few days before the dissection lesson. “Punitive sanctions on schools, teachers feeling like they’re not appreciated—such immense changes that I felt were detrimental to what was happening in the classroom. The reason that IREAD-3 was the final step is because we’d been teaching to tests for quite some time, but when it gets down to the little ones and we’re teaching to test, and [you] can’t get that joy of learning with the little ones, that was my line in the sand.” (Disclosure: The writer’s wife is an elementary special-education teacher in Carmel.)

The first person to suggest that Ritz challenge Bennett was not the teachers’ union, as gossip implied. The ISTA did not recruit her. Instead, Ritz says, colleague Sally Evans, a retired librarian from Perry Township, was the first person to suggest that she run. “We talked about it, and then the more I thought about things and the training I’d been getting [as president of the local teachers’ association], I thought, ‘I do know how to go in and do this job, to make changes,’” she says. Later, at home, she broached the idea with her husband, who, she says, supported her decision.

By that time, Bennett had already lined his campaign war chest with more than a half-million dollars. Her own lack of funds didn’t faze Ritz. “You don’t win if it’s not grassroots, in my personal opinion,” she says. “I have never had enough money, in any campaigns that I’ve helped run, from school board to even helping with state elections in my local area.” And so, just six months before Election Day, Ritz filed her papers with the secretary of state, and the race was on.

“They didn’t vote for Glenda because her name is Glenda Ritz. They voted for her because they want to see education treated in a different way than it’s been treated in the last four years. She believes in changing things for the better—that’s all she wants to do.”
Nate Schnellenberger, president, Indiana State Teachers Association

But another teacher, a local union president like Ritz, had beaten her to the punch. Justin Oakley, a social-studies instructor at Bell-East Middle School in Martinsville and a Democrat, had been campaigning across roughly 35 counties for months, filing his candidacy with the secretary of state in November 2011. He had earned close to $15,000 from more than 500 donors and had gone through the ISTA’s candidate-endorsement process.

Meanwhile, Ritz made a call to the president of the ISTA, Nate Schnellenberger. “I’m going to be running,” she told him. “I’m going to want teacher support, and I’d like you to set up a meeting with me and [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] John Gregg.” Afterward, in his endorsement of Ritz, Schnellenberger said in a statement: “I am pleased that after interviewing candidates, members of our political action committee recognize that Glenda Ritz is the right choice for public education and for public educators at this time.
She has proven herself as a leader who is eager to return educator input into decision- and policymaking at the state level.”  

For his part, Oakley planned a challenge at the party’s convention, but says he decided to take the “high road.” “The last thing I wanted to do was bring a bunch of negative attention to the race,” he says. “I knew in my gut [the Democrats] could win, and we did.”

Her only competition vanquished, Ritz next earned Gregg’s endorsement. “Once that happened, the teachers’ union got behind Glenda,” Oakley says.

After clinching her party’s nomination, Ritz hustled, putting as many as 800 miles a week on a 2007 beige Buick LeSabre, traveling to plenty of small towns. She oversaw a skeleton crew of four: scheduler and policy adviser Kristin Reed, a former aide with the House Democrats; campaign manager Trish Whitcomb Sipes, a state-level veteran of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, a former special-education teacher, and the daughter of former Governor Edgar Whitcomb; full-time volunteer and researcher Sally Evans; and jack-of-all-political-trades consultant David Galvin, a former aide to Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight.

Galvin says he watched Ritz’s speech at the party’s convention, and saw in her the same je ne sais quoi Goodnight possessed. “I was pretty impressed with her energy,” he says of her passion about issues such as offering more vocational classes and increasing the focus on literacy. “I saw that in [Goodnight], and I saw that in her the first time I saw her speak—heck, no one had even heard of her.”

The group worked out of an 1897 Victorian mansion on North Pennsylvania Street, the headquarters of the Winston/Terrell Group, the public-opinion and campaign consultancy Ritz hired. While Ritz traveled the state, Galvin put together a social-media operation that many say helped her to victory. He developed the strategy from studying how protestors used social media—particularly, Facebook—in the Arab Spring uprising that has swept the Middle East.

During the final weeks of the campaign, Ritz’s posts regis-tered more than 200,000 views; many went viral by Facebook standards, with some receiving hundreds of likes and dozens of comments. On July 4, her team posted “Happy Independence Day! Electing Glenda will bring more freedom to local school districts to implement what WORKS for their students.” And on October 7, Ritz posted a picture of a campaign button she saw one of her supporters wear: “Those who can, teach. Those who cannot pass laws about teaching.”

Meanwhile, Ritz’s husband Gary became deeply involved, delivering yard signs to supporters and scouring the Internet for stories about the race that Galvin could use as ammo on social media. “He was better than a Google Alert,” Galvin says.

Despite the traction Ritz gained on Facebook, there were few signs of the upset to come. A Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll conducted roughly one week before the election had Bennett leading likely voters with 40 percent to Ritz’s 36 percent. On Election Day, though, voters arrived en masse to cast their ballots for her.

In her victory speech, Ritz took the stage in the Marriott ballroom to chants of “Glenda! Glenda! Glenda!” “The next four years,” she told supporters, “will be a strong focus on quality classroom instruction and learning. We will have an education agenda, not a political agenda.”

With the election over, Ritz and her husband recovered over Thanksgiving by seeing three movies: Lincoln, Skyfall, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. Their Friday nights went back to dinners out.

After lunch at Palomino, Ritz made her way to transition headquarters on the 11th floor of the PNC Center, where two aides were at work in an otherwise bare sea of gray workstations. They munched on Rice Krispies treats that Ritz somehow found time to make between her early mornings (which usually begin at 5 a.m.) and a grinding schedule that had her tending to her duties at Crooked Creek and visiting schools as far north as Gary—trips from which she returned late in the evening.

In January, Ritz and senior staffers took over a wood-paneled office in the Statehouse, and her extended team moved down to the fifth and sixth floors of PNC, where the Department of Education is relocating—not to the nearby teachers’-union headquarters, contrary to rumors that swirled among politicos after the election. Ritz downplays the idea that the union will enjoy outsized influence over her administration. “I was asked just the other day by a legislator, ‘Are you moving the Department of Education over to the ISTA building?’ No,” she says. “Am I hiring people that work at the ISTA or have recently retired to work in my office? No.”

Inside headquarters, Sarah Russell, the former manager for the unsuccessful congressional campaign of State Representative Scott Reske, fielded a steady stream of phone calls. Most were from Republican lawmakers who wanted a meeting with Ritz before the legislative session convened. Reske himself had come on board in recent weeks as a volunteer legislative liaison. And, rather quietly, Suellen Reed, a Republican who held the office of superintendent for 16 years before she retired and Bennett won the position, also offered informal counsel to the transition team.  

“I understand that we have a new administrator for the Department of Education, but the superintendent [has] very limited authority to impact legislation or policies enacted by the school board. So it will be incumbent on her to make the case, as the half-dozen or so superintendents that we’ve worked with over the years have.”
Brian Bosma, Republican Speaker of the House

In addition to meeting with governor-elect Pence, Ritz had post-election sit-downs with Republican Senate leader David Long; state senators Luke Kenley  and Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate education committee; State Representative Bob Behning, chairman of the House education committee; and House Speaker Brian Bosma. She describes the meetings as low-key, getting-to-know-you sessions in which they talked about potential areas of cooperation, like career and technical education.

Ritz also met with Bennett in his Statehouse office during the first week of December to discuss the transition. Bennett gave her a 1,528-page book to review, Indiana School Laws and Rules: 2012–2013. The meeting was cordial, both parties say. Amid the changeover, however, a few bumps formed in the road: Bosma says he had “some degree of difficulty” getting a meeting with Ritz after reaching out to her, claiming it took nearly two weeks to get on her calendar. In December, at the first meeting of the State Board of Education since the election, her request to table a controversial measure to loosen teacher-licensing requirements was rejected. And a memo sent by Ritz’s staff to Bennett’s asking for the resignations of 71 staffers ruffled some feathers. Ritz has since invited the employees to reapply for their positions.

Ritz, though, seemed poised for a more measured course during her first few months in office. “We all need to go down the road of reform,” Galvin says of Ritz’s early moves in office. “We all need to catch up to the 21st century … But, you know, Tony Bennett went down the road in a Corvette. Glenda wants to go down the road in a Cadillac.”

For starters, Ritz would like to replace IREAD-3 with a growth-model assessment and launch a literacy campaign, using her social-media power to promote reading. “I don’t care [about] the economic level [or] status of the parents or the involvement of the parents; everyone wants their child to read. That makes something that we can all rally around and be involved in,” she says. (Ritz is an avid reader, consuming books on her Kindle; the most recent: Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully’s yearlong look at life inside Emmerich Manual High—from which she took three pages of notes. “He has a lot of solutions in there,” she says.)

At a December Lions Club meeting in Garrett, a small town outside of Fort Wayne, Ritz maintained the mannerisms of a teacher: When it was time for questions, she raised her right hand, modeling how she would like the middle-aged guests to respond. She also told the audience that she planned to take her name off of a lawsuit challenging the state voucher program, which was being argued in front of the state Supreme Court. Otherwise, it would be a conflict of interest. (A ruling was pending at press time.)

Eventually, Ritz wants to see the ISTEP replaced with a test that’s less punitive and that measures student growth. “We spend millions of dollars on ISTEP tests—a pass-fail test—and teachers could tell you probably before we ever give the test which students will not do well,” she says. “We teach to that test all year long.”

Ritz also supports lowering the mandatory age of school attendance for children from 7 to 5—the subject of a potential bill that could be debated this session. “We frequently get young people into our first-grade classrooms that have not been to kindergarten,” she says. “They have not been to preschool … and if they haven’t had home support with their reading, if they’re not ready for first grade, a lot of times we’ve put them back in kindergarten.”

The day she appeared before the State Board of Education in December, Ritz met with officials from Charter Schools USA, the Fort Lauderdale–based company that is now running three “failing” IPS schools, including T.C. Howe Community High, which the state took over last summer.

At the meeting, Ritz received a student-led tour of the near-eastside campus, which saw a nearly 100 percent turnover in staff and its school roll of 1,000 dwindle to around 700 after the takeover last summer, says principal Keith Burke. Ritz has said that she doesn’t think the state should grade schools on an A-to-F basis (one of Bennett’s major initiatives) and shouldn’t be in the business of taking
over failing schools like Howe—potentially making her dealings with Charter Schools USA awkward. “I don’t know the extent of those contracts and how all of that works, so I have to get a good feel for that,” Ritz says. “I openly said to the charter school at Howe, I said, ‘I prefer’—I gave them my position—‘I prefer for charters to be formed at the local level,’ where there’s a need.”

In the past, Mayor Greg Ballard has expressed a desire to take control of the Indianapolis “turnaround” schools from the state. Asked whether she would support that move, Ritz says: “My preference is always that if there’s going to be a charter, that it’s happening at the local level, and the local entity decides best upon how that happens. I guess I’d be interested in dialogue about that [with the mayor’s office].”

Ritz acknowledged the learning curve ahead of her, but, she says, “I’m going to have a great support team around me.” She adds: “I’ve never professed to have talents in everything, especially the business-operations side. That’s an area where I need people that have talents that I don’t.” Former Bennett chief of staff Todd Huston, a freshman state representative from Fishers and a new addition to the House education committee, says the learning curve Ritz faces may be steeper than she realizes. “You also walk into the middle of a legislative session that starts before she’s ever taken office,” he says. “You’re having to play catch-up on the legislative stuff. You’re trying to get your own team in place. You’re trying to understand federal policy. You have state implementations you’re responsible for. You’re looking for places in which you have flexibility. These aren’t options. They’re law.”

To be fair, Bennett faced a similar challenge when he took office: He had never held an elected position before, either. Still, Galvin points out that Bennett had been a district superintendent—an executive experience Ritz lacks. The next few months, he says, will be full of lessons for Ritz and her team. “The session is going to be a learning experience for all of us,” he admits. “You know the saying: Now you got to make sausage.”

The shark dissection a success, Ritz, still in a lab coat and gloves, began the cleanup process. Some parents cleared a stack of metal trays, now dripping with shark juice. Others carried trash bags filled with soiled table covers and gloves out to the Dumpster. A few parents approached her afterward, congratulating her on the new gig and wishing her well. She thanked them for their support.

Next, an assistant helped her record a video of yet another dissection, this time without an audience, to instruct teachers on how to perform the lesson as part of an oceanography unit when Ritz is gone. When she finished, Ritz’s thoughts turned once more toward her next job. Asked if she’ll miss events like these when in the Statehouse, she shrugged off the notion that she would be lost for the next four years inside the bureaucracy of the august building’s walls.

“I’ll be with the kids,” she said. “I can’t get away from the classroom.

Photos by Tony Valainis

See what more Indiana students, teachers, policymakers, and wonks think of Glenda Ritz’s election here.

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue.