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Glenda Ritz says she won’t back down from political foes

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz said in an interview Tuesday she would keep pushing her agenda despite pointed disagreements with the State Board of Education.

Ritz said she believed she had significant support for her vision of educational change in Indiana, despite skepticism from her political opponents.

Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office, also said she was not thinking about running for governor, as some of her supporters had hoped, in the wake of former gubernatorial candidate John Gregg’s recent decision not to challenge Gov. Mike Pence in 2016.

But she wouldn’t rule it out.

“I have learned a long time ago to never say never to anything,” she  said. “But I will tell you I’m all about this job. I’m all about the state superintendency. I’m an educator.”

The interview with Chalkbeat, sponsored by WFYI and the central library and broadcast live on the Internet, covered a wide range of issues, including politics, testing, standards and her vision for education in Indiana.

But in the wake of her battles with other members of the state board, including a lawsuit charging the other board members violated state transparency laws, Ritz laid the blame for the conflict on the legislature, which gave Gov. Mike Pence the power to create a new state agency that controls the budget of the state board.

Previously, the board’s budget was managed by Indiana Department of Education staff. Now the board has its own state-paid staff.

While there has been political opposition to her superintendency from the start, she said, that move raised the tension to a new level.

“It started out just pure politics,” Ritz said. “I was elected. That, in itself, started out with that tension. I expected that and that’s OK. Then it’s changed because of one piece of money leaving my department.”

The state board, she said, now makes plans with its own staff, harming communication with the education department.

“Decisions made by staff with the board, that feels like it’s overseeing my agency,” she said. “I have exerted myself as the chair of the state board of education, to do that in a professional manner every meeting. I will continue to do that.”

The suit, Ritz said, was a matter of principle. After the other 10 state board members signed a letter asking the legislature to assist in calculating A to F grades for schools, Ritz’s suit said they violated laws requiring public boards to make decisions in open meetings. Some board members felt Ritz was moving too slowly to issue the grades. Ritz blames the delay on ISTEP testing glitches and parent requests for rescoring of their children’s exams.

“It affects not only my board but state boards and commissions everywhere,” she said. “Does the board have the right to not call a meeting and decide to take action outside of that public arena? I do not believe it does.”

Ritz also rejected the notion of some of her opponents that her election was less about supporting her agenda or rejecting recent education initiatives than it was the public’s expression of opposition to her predecessor, Tony Bennett, and his abrasive style. In fact, Ritz said, public support for her positions — especially focusing on reading, reducing standardized testing and restoring more diversity to school curriculum beyond math and English — is growing.

She said she was not aiming to mobilize supporters but hoped like-minded voters would make their feelings known.

“I believe if issues are important to the public, they mobilize themselves,” she said. “That’s their role as citizens of the state of Indiana. If they believe something is going in the direction they want it to go they should say so and they should make it known. If they don’t believe it’s going in a direction they want it to go, they should make it known.”