Indiana schools chief candidates split on leadership, ISTEP

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz has been at the middle of Indiana’s education policy fights over the past four years, typically at odds with Republicans who control the rest of state government and have extended school overhaul measures and pushed to limit her authority.

Her challenged in the November election, Republican Jennifer McCormick, is critical of Ritz’s management of the state Department of Education. McCormick, who has been the superintendent of the Yorktown Community Schools near Muncie since 2010, argues that she would be better able to work with the General Assembly and school leaders.

The race has garnered little attention during the year’s campaign season, but the winner will have a role in major education matters: the replacement of the much-maligned ISTEP statewide standardized test, the push to expand of state-funded preschool programs and possible changes to the A-F school ratings system.

Ritz — the only Democrat among Indiana’s elected state officeholders — was a little-known suburban Indianapolis school librarian before upsetting Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in 2012. Her win was driven by teachers’ anger over education changes, such as the state’s private school voucher program pushed by Bennett under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Much of the support for Ritz’s campaign has come from the state’s largest teachers unions. McCormick, who has also been an elementary school principal, an English teacher and in special education, has received large campaign contributions from several groups and individuals who supported Bennett’s 2012 campaign.

A major issue the schools superintendent will face is negotiating with lawmakers next year on a new standardized exam. A state committee has made little progress toward recommending a replacement for the ISTEP test, which is taken more than 400,000 students. Parents and teachers blasted the exam last year after testing time jumped by several hours. The test had been redesigned to meet new state standards after Republican legislators and GOP Gov. Mike Pence withdrew Indiana from the national Common Core math and English standards in 2014.

Ritz has long called for scrapping the single pass/fail ISTEP test, but her ideas didn’t gain traction with the Republican-dominated Legislature until after the 2015 uproar. Now, she wants shorter tests that are given three times a year; the exam is now given during a spring testing period.

“When standards were changed by the state of Indiana, I implement those,” Ritz said. “So we’ve had very short turnaround times for a lot of change.”

McCormick also wants the test to take less time and proposes that state testing be limited to 1 percent of total instructional time during a schools year.

McCormick said Indiana’s Department of Education contributed to the ISTEP troubles by often failing to provide clear directions to schools on administering the test and not adequately overseeing the company hired to produce and grade the exam.

“There’s just been a lot of frustration,” she said. “The last three years have been very difficult with assessments.”

Ritz has clashed frequently with Pence and his appointees who control the State Board of Education. Republican legislators pushed through measures that shifted some authority from her office to the education board and, starting in January, will end a decades-old law that makes the state superintendent the board’s automatic chairperson.

“I think the public is pretty well-aware of Pence’s attacks on me,” Ritz said recently. “The people wanted someone that was going to actually work with schools for improvement on behalf of students. I feel strongly that was what I was hired to do.”

McCormick said too much political squabbling involving Ritz has hampered progress on many issues. McCormick said she would repair relationships with legislative leaders.

“For us to be a state where it’s known across the nation that there’s a relational problem is unacceptable,” McCormick said. “We have to have people who will work together.”