Kavan Horne recognized the woman in a blue suit greeting people in the cafeteria at Pike Township’s Central Elementary School and could tell she was something of a celebrity, but for a moment he couldn’t place Indiana’s state superintendent.
Then it came to him: “Ritz!”
He looked to his wife, Pamela, and others at his table waiting to see third-graders present their career exploration projects.
“Right?” he double-checked.
Today’s visit to Central was part of the regular routine for Glenda Ritz: she stops in on schools two to three days a week and has visited more than 80 of Indiana’s 92 counties in almost two and a half years in office.
But with a possible run for governor on the horizon, these visits also offer a gauge of the strength of her appeal with a core constituency: parents and teachers.
For his part, Horne likes the idea of a Ritz run against Republican Gov. Mike Pence. He thinks it would be good for a woman and an educator to lead the state, and he would especially like to see a 2016 ticket that includes Ritz alongside likely Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton running for president.
“Women do everything else now, why not governor?” Horne said. “Why can’t Hillary be president?”
Even if it took a minute for him to remember Ritz’s name, Horne is sure about one thing: she’s under attack from political opponents who have portrayed her unfairly.
“Everything the news puts out is always the bad,” he said. “I know they want to oust her. Where are the positives about what she is doing for the kids?”
A Ritz run for governor has become a real possibility over the last month. Right after the Republican-dominated legislature wrapped up its work in late April, Ritz said she was so frustrated with Pence and his allies that she would give challenging Pence some thought.
Citing unnamed sources, two political news websites last week reported Ritz was close to announcing a run for the Democratic nomination for governor. She declined to say today if she had made up her mind, but she said she was planning an announcement for next week.
“My main focus is on education,” Ritz said. “I feel strongly we need an education governor.”
At Central, several parents and teachers seemed to share that sentiment.
Parents Tajuana Fleming and Maquinta Holland, also waiting for the career presentations in the library, admitted they didn’t know who Ritz was but said they liked the idea of the state superintendent stepping up to lead the whole state, not just its schools.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Fleming said. “She’ll know better what the kids need to be better educated.”
Can lightning strike twice?
Ritz’s 2012 victory over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett is already one of Indiana’s most legendary political upsets. Even so, it’s no slam dunk to assume the enthusiasm that made her the only Democrat holding statewide office and earned her 1.3 million votes — more than Pence got while winning the governor’s race that year — would translate to her own successful run for governor in 2016.
In 2012, Bennett’s brusque style and education changes pushed through the legislature by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels that were unpopular with many teachers might have contributed to Ritz’s electoral success. But she also was widely credited for running a shrewd campaign built heavily on teacher and parent grassroots activists who spread the word about her candidacy to friends and family.
It helped her win 52 percent of the vote even though Bennett outspent her by a margin of more than 5 to 1.
To many Indiana educators, Ritz is something of a rock star.
As she toured Central, reading teacher Madhulika Jain trailed behind looking for a chance to shake Ritz’s hand. Jain said she saw Ritz speak at the Indiana State Reading Association and came away inspired.
Jain even memorized a couple of key lines from Ritz’s speech about getting children to love reading so much they will want to do it just for fun.
“A reader is not a person who can read. It’s a person who reads,” Jain recalled Ritz saying.
When it comes to choosing a candidate for governor, Jain said what matters most to her is the high quality of person who is running. On that score, Ritz qualifies, she said.
“I think she would be wonderful,” Jain said.
Jain’s reading teacher colleague, Amanda Foster-Moudy, is already campaigning for change in 2016. She said she has a “Pence Must Go” lawn sign in her yard.
Meeting Ritz in person, she said, was a thrill.
“I just texted my mom and said ‘guess who I just met?’” Foster-Moudy said.
Her mom is also a Pike Township teacher and a Ritz fan.
“I hope the rumors are true,” Foster-Moudy said. “I hope she does run. So many teachers are fired up after the kerfuffle with Pence.”
Judging Ritz’s education leadership
Pence, and his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education, have been deeply critical of Ritz.
Among other things, they’ve argued that she’s sought to block efforts to hold schools and educators to high standards, pointing to her repeated calls to delay or diminish A-to-F grades for schools and teacher evaluation ratings, all of which mostly are based on student test scores. Her critics also argue she has badly fumbled some of her basic duties, notably an overhaul of ISTEP that dramatically lengthened the test, prompting Pence and the legislature to order it shortened in February.
But school visits give Ritz a chance to highlight accomplishments that she says matter most. In the library with a group of fourth graders at Central, Ritz asked how many had heard about her Hoosier Family of Readers initiative. Most said they had.
The program encourages reading in and out of school and has made 5,000 books available online, Ritz said.
“Have a great summer, but make sure you read 20 minutes every day,” she told the students. “I read 20 minutes every day in bed before I go to sleep.”
Many of the school visits, she said, also bring her to schools with low test scores that the state is monitoring through another Ritz initiative: the Indiana Department of Education’s Division of Outreach for School Improvement. The division has placed 13 coordinators who oversee troubled schools in nine regions across the state. The coordinators often join her on visits to failing schools, she said.
Central, however, is not one of them. It’s been quite a success story, in fact.
The school’s ISTEP passing rate made steady gains during the past six years to 73 percent last year, up from just 41 percent passing in 2009. That’s just short of the state average of 74 percent passing both English and math.
The biggest gain came last year: a jump of 14 percentage points from the prior year. That boosted Central’s grade to an A from a C, the first time the school rated higher than C since 2005.
Central parents say those gains say something good about the school, the district and the state.
Fleming, whose family moved here from Mississippi four years ago, believes education in Indiana is clearly superior, but she still had to hunt to find the right school for her two children.
They started out in Indianapolis Public Schools, she said, where teachers told her they were a year behind their peers. But at the end of their first year, Fleming didn’t think enough progress had been made, so she switched to Pike Township schools.
Holland said she also moved her daughter to Central Elementary School from IPS because of similar worries.
“Her school got an F, and I pulled her right out of there,” she said.
But the parents don’t put all the blame on IPS and chafe at lawmakers who fault the schools.
“Indianapolis Public Schools are struggling, but the townships seem to have a little more support,” said Pamela Givens-Horne, Karan Horne’s wife. “I’m concerned about IPS.”
The state, she said, should pay more attention IPS, too.
The 2016-17 state budget, passed last month, could cut up to $17 million in aid from IPS. About half of the poorest districts in Indiana also will get less money, while all of the 25 wealthiest are getting extra aid.
Funding for schools facing the biggest hurdles will be on Givens-Horne’s mind come election time.
“Inner-city schools have not gotten the funding they need,” she said. “They’re not helping enough.”