For the second time in four years, a political newcomer has unexpectedly triumphed over the incumbent in the race for Indiana state superintendent.
Republican Jennifer McCormick took an early lead over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz and maintained it throughout the night, ending at about 10 p.m. Tuesday when the race was called with a 7-percentage-point victory over Ritz. McCormick said her leadership experience helped her pull off the win.
“People understood that leadership was needed, that partnerships were a problem in Indiana,” McCormick said. “They understand the assessment piece is a mess. So people understood. They heard our message and obviously agreed with it tonight. But it also helped too we had a very successful night for the whole Republican ticket.”
Ritz, who led most of the polls, was expected by her supporters, and even some critics, to carry the race again as she did in 2012 when she unseated Tony Bennett, a shocking result at the time.
Ritz burst on Indiana’s political scene by beating Bennett, who had become a Republican darling for pushing hard for test-based accountability and school choice. Ritz was an unknown Democrat in a Republican state who was badly outspent but won anyway.
Her supporters cheered her win, hoping it was the start of a movement, fueled by a backlash against a decade-long expansion of the use of standardized testing to measure students and schools.
She spent most of her four-year term fighting an all-out battle against a Republican governor and Republican-dominated Legislature to push back on their favored education reforms. She had few policy wins. She was cheered by deeply loyal supporters, especially educators, but the movement failed to materialize. There were no key electoral victories during her term in office to give her more Democratic allies.
This time, the Democratic darling lost to an unknown Republican challenger whom she easily outspent. As she exits the political stage, she leaves the Democrats with no key elected officials to stand against Republican education priorities. With a Republican governor, Republican-dominated Legislature and a Republican state superintendent, Indiana is solid red when it comes to education policy.
Ritz was composed Tuesday night as she addressed supporters at the Indiana Democratic Party’s election night event. She quickly left the stage after imploring Hoosiers to stay involved in order to improve Indiana education.
“There is work to do to continue building an education system of equity and high quality,” Ritz said. “It is all about meeting the needs of our children … students and families … you must be part of the conversation. Be a loud voice at the Statehouse.”
McCormick, a longtime educator and superintendent from Yorktown, was largely unknown to voters before she announced her candidacy this year. She won with about 54 percent of the vote when the race was called.
Joining her in statewide office will be Republican Governor-elect Eric Holcomb, who won his first elective office. Hoosiers will have to get to know both of them, as neither has weighed in substantially on Indiana’s education policy debates.
During the race, McCormick gave fewer details about her policy plans than Ritz, who made bold promises to replace the state ISTEP exam with a very different sort of test and to expand preschool to make it available to all four-year-olds. Her vision on testing and preschool now seems very unlikely to be adopted.
There were several areas of agreement between Ritz and McCormick. She largely agreed with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, to add more school funding for high poverty schools and offer more support and pay for teachers.
Among their biggest differences was private school tuition vouchers. McCormick said she supports giving the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, but she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools. Ritz was a consistent critic of the voucher program.
McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students. Ritz wanted to overhaul ISTEP so it could be given in smaller tests throughout the school year.
Preschool will likely be a hot topic during this year’s Legislative session. Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach—at least at first.
She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer free preschool to everyone, even wealthy families.
But it’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick will have with lawmakers.
Although her policies don’t always line up with the priorities of Republican legislative leaders, she will be from the same party, which could smooth working relationships.
With Holcomb at the helm, that also means the Indiana State Board of Education will likely stay on a similar track as the current board—appointed by Pence—favorable to school choice and so far unmoved by some of Ritz’s bolder proposals.
Although this state board has seen less tension since it was reorganized in 2015, Ritz and board members have still butted heads about communication and the availability of data and other materials related to school performance and turnaround.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.