Indiana’s Education Election is a Mixed Bag

Democrat challenger Glenda Ritz defeated Republican incumbent Tony Bennett in the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction race last night  by almost 133,000 votes – winning 53% to 47%.  This is a mixed bag for me.

On one hand Tony Bennett, who advocated for the Common Core State Standards, said that advocacy cost him.

How does Bennett think Ritz pulled off what can fairly be described as a big upset? The Common Core State Standards plays a role. Bennett argued that Ritz—who is skeptical of the common core—used the standards to take away conservative voters who otherwise favored him. Many Republicans are critical of the common core because they say it smacks of too much federal involvement. Bennett, a big champion of the common standards, also said Ritz’s victory could jeopardize Indiana’s leading role in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, one of two state consortia working on assessments tied to the standards.

“I have some very serious concerns about the future of that program,” he said of the testing consortia. And when it came to common standards, Bennett said, “She did a very good job of appealing to the strong conservative base who had problems with the common core. So that’s another issue obviously.”

That is more likely than “teacher mistrust” as Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star said using some anecdotal evidence.   Consider that Republican Mike Pence, a conservative, won the Governor’s race and Mitt Romney won Indiana.  It seems far more likely that Republicans, and perhaps conservatives, jumped ship on Bennett and voted for Ritz.

On the other hand as a former resident of Indiana and observer of the education policy struggles there I’m not excited about Glenda Ritz as his replacement.  She is an advocate of the teachers’ unions and against school choice. 

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation called this election a Catch 22, and I would have to agree.  She wrote:

Bennett’s replacement, Glenda Ritz, opposes Bennett’s heightened emphasis on testing (leaving observers to wonder whether she would oppose Common Core national standards) but also opposes school choice (Ritz had the full support of Indiana’s teachers union). While Ritz could work to divest Indiana of its entanglement with national standards, there is fear that she could also limit the state’s vaunted school choice options.

This is at the heart of why education reformers closely watching Indiana’s state superintendent race faced a Catch-22: Many have argued that the power of school choice that Bennett championed is limited if all schools are teaching the same curriculum. And what good is the testing freedom Ritz favors absent the ability to choose which school your child attends?

The wild card in Indiana’s education future is Governor-elect Mike Pence.  He could be a champion of school choice and education reform.  Jim Stergios pointed out recently that Pence is well known for not liking federal mandates.  He said “it would be a remarkable about-face if he were to support national standards.”

That is true.  With a new state school chief who doesn’t like standardized testing, and a new Governor who doesn’t like federal mandates it would seem Indiana is poised to junk the Common Core.  I hope they do.