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Protesters, led by teachers union, demonstrate in 2015 against changes to Indiana laws.

Protesters, led by teachers union, demonstrate in 2015 against changes to Indiana laws.

Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Ritz rallies supporters against efforts to limit her power at Statehouse

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz cheered on a large Statehouse crowd today that carried signs critical of Gov. Mike Pence — her adversary for two years — and shouted praise for public schools many of them said were under attack.

In a dramatic moment, Ritz unexpectedly strolled down the center aisle among an estimated crowd of more than 700, causing a roar to grow until she reached the stage.

“I stand with you,” Ritz yelled back from the stage, echoing the crowd’s earlier chants from three levels of the Statehouse atrium. “It’s about the voters who elected me to do what I put in my platform. It’s about less testing and more time to teach.”

Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office and the rally was aimed squarely at Republican-backed bills that would remove the guarantee that Ritz serve as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education and shift some oversight of education programs from the Indiana Department of Education, which she oversees, to the state board.

But the rally also had plenty of harsh words for other Republican-led education policies, including independently-run public charter schools, test-based accountability like school A to F grades and the state’s fast-growing private school voucher system.

PHOTOS: Were you at #Rally4Ritz? Check out Chalkbeat’s photo gallery

Those bills and programs prompted the Indiana Coalition for Public Education to organize the rally, said Marilyn Shank, the group’s vice president.

“We’re very concerned about multiple bills that would replace the state superintendent,” Shank said. “There are 1.3 million voters who elected her to do her job. The system we have now has been working for 100 years. Why would we change it because some people don’t get along? If you are going to set education policy, you need to listen to educators.”

Ritz and Pence have been at odds ever since Ritz’s surprise 2012 defeat of her Republican predecessor, Tony Bennett, a favorite of those pushing for test-based accountability and school choice. Their disagreements have often played out in the public through Ritz’s repeated ruffles with Pence’s state board appointees.

Republicans say bills allowing the State Board of Education members to elect their own leader will improve what many consider to be a dysfunctional group. But Ritz’s supports say the move would effectively overturn the will of the voters.

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, a member of Monroe County Coalition for Public Education, said dysfunction is just an excuse for a power grab.

“Dysfunction is voiding our votes so you can silence that dissent,” she said.

The crowd at the Statehouse gathered on the same day as the Indiana Senate was scheduled to hear Senate Bill 1, which would effectively remove Ritz as chairwoman of the state board. Rally attendees cheered when they learned Republican Sen. Travis Holdman, the bill’s author, decided not to call the bill for a vote today.

But leaders said people shouldn’t cheer until Senate Bill 1, and similar bills, are dead. Senate Bill 1 likely will be reconsidered later this week.

Some at the rally weren’t sure they could stop those bills but hoped to build energy that could spill over into future elections.

“It won’t make any difference, but I want to serve them notice that they’re going to have a very short time in office,” said Andrew Polley, a teacher at IPS’s Arsenal Technical High School. “There’s few voting blocks more motivated and vocal than teachers. We won’t forget.”

Indiana Federation of Teachers President Rick Muir said the only way to make change is by voting. Republicans picked up several seats in both the House and Senate last fall during an election that saw record-low voter turnout.

“The worst thing that can happen is for you to leave fired up and go home and rest and not fight,” Muir said. “You can’t do that. They’ve got to hear you back home, or this is for nothing.”