It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of major U.S. and statewide elections, but education advocates urge Indiana voters not to overlook this year’s race for state superintendent of public instruction.
While in most states the education chief traditionally works mostly behind the scenes, Indiana’s state superintendent is front and center, particularly when it comes to high-profile issues such as standardized testing, school funding and whether to expand or overhaul the state’s preschool pilot. They’re all issues that could alter the way the state’s roughly 1 million children are educated.
There’s a lot at stake, said Justin Ohlemiller, the executive director of Indiana Stand for Children.
“Voters should take the time to prioritize the state superintendent’s race,” Ohlemiller said. “What we do in education today will absolutely 100 percent shape the kind of city and state we are for the remaining part of this generation and generations to come.”
The battle pits incumbent Glenda Ritz, the only Indiana Democrat currently holding statewide office, against a Republican challenger with ties to the education-reform effort in Indianapolis.
Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of the Yorktown school district near Muncie, has taken issue with how Ritz has run the department of education, and has repeatedly said the state needs a stronger, more organized and communicative leader.
McCormick has said her education department would be more open to school reforms that give parents additional choices about where to send their children to school such as vouchers and charter schools, while Ritz has fiercely advocated for initiatives that strengthen traditional public schools and prevent funding from leaving public school districts.
The two might also have different visions for what kinds of standardized tests Indiana students should be taking—an important distinction as a committee of educators and lawmakers considers a new testing program to replace ISTEP by 2018. The committee could also make adjustments to way the schools are evaluated and held accountable for student performance.
Both candidates have spent their careers in public education—Ritz as a school librarian, teacher and union leader in Washington Township and McCormick as a teacher, principal and district leader.
But politically, they approach education very differently.
Ritz, a longtime friend to the state’s teachers unions, has been critical during her time as schools chief of charter schools and of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Those viewpoints helped inspire the rank-and-file educators who fueled her surprise upset victory over incumbent Republican Tony Bennett in 2012.
Bennett had been lauded in education reform circles for the changes he helped usher into the state in 2011 under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, including restrictions on collective bargaining for educators and a new model for teacher evaluations.
But as she runs for re-election, it’s not clear whether Ritz will have the same broad appeal this time around. Her administration has overseen a rocky period in Indiana education in which changing academic standards mandated by state lawmakers have left many educators and parents unsettled.
Last year’s ISTEP exam was riddled with technical glitches and scoring problems that some say Ritz should have been able to prevent. But her supporters say the education department did it’s job working with test companies and that technical issues can affect any state no matter who is in charge.
To win again this year, Ritz will also have to overcome bad publicity from political spats with state Republican leaders and and from possible errors in how federal poverty funds were distributed to schools this past year.
Rlitz has had some high profile successes including championing a “hold harmless” provision that protected schools from serious consequences after higher state standards led to a dramatic drop in student scores on the 2015 ISTEP test. But upheaval in the race for governor could force Ritz to quickly rethink her campaign strategy.
Now that Gov. Mike Pence has joined Donald Trump’s campaign as his presidential running mate, taking him off the state ballot in November, Ritz can no longer score political points by lobbing criticisms at her longstanding political foe.
Her only political foil is McCormick, who is fairly new to Hoosiers and therefore harder to attack.
McCormick has so far won support from reform-minded advocates, but her challenge will be making herself better known in education circles to overcome Ritz’s popularity with teachers.
The elected state superintendent works in concert with the Indiana General Assembly, the governor’s office and the Indiana State Board of Education, but ultimately, the winner is the main figure who implements education policy in the state.
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the race is something voters should be watching closely.
“It seems like this year especially, every race has the potential for huge impact in terms of the future of education of kids in Indiana,” she said.
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.