Ritz’s battles with GOP offer learning under fire

INDIANAPOLIS — Glenda Ritz doesn’t look like a woman who provokes outrage.

A petite woman with an open face, Indiana’s embattled superintendent of public instruction answers questions with the grace of a veteran during an hourlong conversation on the radio show I host. She even smiles during a lot of it.

That can’t be easy. Ritz, the only Democratic officeholder in Indiana’s executive branch, now is at the center of a firestorm over ISTEP testing — just the latest in a nonstop series of heated battles in which she’s been involved since she won an upset victory in 2012.

At the moment, she’s the target of pointed criticisms from Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, about the ISTEP tests, which are going to take twice as long as in previous years. In an ill-advised press conference a few days ago, the governor issued an executive order that the tests be shortened and said the long tests were Ritz’s fault because she hadn’t informed the State Board of Education, all of whose members have been appointed by Pence or his predecessor, fellow Republican Mitch Daniels.

This occurs at the same time that there are measures moving through a legislature dominated by Republican supermajorities that would make Ritz’s position appointed rather than elected and would remove her as chair of the education board.

I asked Ritz what so many Republicans have against her.

“They don’t like the fact that I won the election,” she said.

When a listener asks how she feels about the measures designed to strip her of power, Ritz is just as matter of fact.

It’s not about her, she said. It’s an attempt to silence the people who voted for her.

If so, it doesn’t seem to be working.

During the hour that we’re on the air, the phone banks stay full with callers. The stream of emails, Facebook messages and Tweets from listeners approaches flood level.

There are a few critical, even hostile, notes among them, but the overwhelming majority urge her to keep fighting for schools and children. Quite a few of them don’t want her to run for superintendent of public instruction again in 2016. They want her to challenge Pence and run for governor.

Ritz said she’s running for re-election as superintendent. After that, she said she doesn’t know what she’ll do — which seems like a signal that she won’t rule out running for governor in 2020.

A couple of years ago, that would have seemed an outlandish idea.

When she first was on the show, not long after she was elected, Ritz seemed tentative, a little shy and not comfortable with being the center of attention, much less controversy.

Two years of jousting with the education board, legislators and the governor has changed that. It’s a cliché to talk about political fires tempering elected officials, but that’s what seems to have happened with Ritz.

She now handles controversy and confrontation with an aplomb she could not have mustered when she first took office.

This latest flap over testing is an example.

Ritz explained that she ran on a platform of reducing testing for the state’s students. She said that the time required for the test increased because the governor and Republican lawmakers decided to opt out of Common Core and then imposed other standards they wanted assessed.

She said that, contrary to Pence’s claims, she and her staff informed the education board the test would take longer. Besides, she added, more testing was the GOP’s idea for establishing accountability, not hers.

That’s a deft bit of rhetorical parrying, but nowhere near as skilled as her soft-voiced slap at Pence.

If the governor is so concerned about communicating with the Department of Education, she asked, why didn’t he call her instead of holding a news conference to express his concerns?

Have to give that round to Ritz.

The fight over education in Indiana, though, is far from over. Pence’s and senior Republican lawmakers’ determination to crush Ritz seems to grow apace with the growth of her support among voters.

The Republicans seem determined to battle to the last bell.

It appears Ritz will answer that bell.

The woman may be small, but she’s tough, a lot tougher than she looks — and, thanks in part to the people determined to crush her, much, much tougher than she was when she started.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.