Brian Howey: Glenda Ritz seeks education showdown with Gov. Pence

Brian Howey evaluates the race for governor now that Glenda Ritz has announced.

The Elkhart Truth
By Brian Howey

INDIANAPOLIS — It was noon on Friday, Nov. 6, 2003, as citizen Mitch Daniels stood among diners at Don & Dona’s restaurant in downtown Franklin. Over his shoulder on TV was Gov. Joe Kernan, reversing his stunning announcement from the year prior not to run in 2004.

Daniels welcomed Kernan back to the race. “No one can predict the ultimate political effect, but from a citizen’s standpoint, this is absolutely for the best,” he said. “It makes the questions before us completely plain. After 16 years of one-party rule by career politicians do we want to start fresh, or not?”

This history lesson is worth repeating. On Thursday, June 4, Democratic Supt. Glenda Ritz kicked off her gubernatorial campaign at Ben Davis High School in a low-key manner before a large media contingent and several dozen supporters. “As someone who has seen politics drive the creation of an entirely new government agency, just to take away authority from the Department of Education, I am well aware of the need to use tax dollars wisely so that Hoosiers get the government they deserve,” said Ritz. “Today in Indiana, out-of-touch Republican leadership at the Statehouse embrace policies that tear Hoosiers apart instead of bringing us together. These realities are why, today, in order to move Indiana forward I am announcing my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor of Indiana.”

After 12 years of Republican Statehouse dominance, and after three years of Gov. Mike Pence and legislative Republicans taking aim at Ritz and her portfolio, from the citizen’s standpoint, the compelling showdown would be Ritz vs. Pence.

For half a decade, Republicans have ushered in sprawling education reforms dating back to Daniels’ second term, when in 2011 he, Supt. Tony Bennett and legislative Republicans dramatically changed education. Since then, a tug-of-war has emerged as Ritz upset Bennett a year later, setting the stage for the lone plank of divided government between the Pence administration and Ritz’s embattled Department of Education. If Ritz can prove her mettle as a candidate, raise money, present a consistent message to counter the governor’s claims of generational education changes under 12 years of GOP rule, and become a disciplined, on-message candidate, then Hoosiers may well have the rubber match when it comes to education policy. Candidate Ritz in 2012 ran subterranean with a paltry war chest, winning on the ability to exploit social media as female voters fled Pence and Richard Mourdock.

The education wars between Ritz and the Daniels/Pence/Bennett era are not clarion. Graduation rates and test scores have risen, with both Pence and Ritz claiming credit. But results from the move to uncap the number of charter schools and vouchers are mixed, with the new education wave not out-performing traditional public schools. There are subplots, such as the dramatic decline in teacher candidates entering Purdue and Ball State education schools that has a “vote with your feet” twist from the next generation of potential educators. To them, the onus of results has moved from parents and students to teachers.

A Pence vs. Ritz race — which at this point is far from any foregone conclusion, as John Gregg and Sen. Karen Tallian will insist — has the potential to underscore a huge policy chasm between the two parties in what appears to be an epic election cycle.

Ritz underscored her role in what she sees as an improvement on student performance, a policy area where she intends to battle Gov. Pence on where credit should land. “In just two years, we have seen incredible improvement in our schools. I created the division of outreach, which proactively works with schools throughout the state to provide much needed support. These professionals are spread throughout Indiana and working in communities they know, love and want to see improve. Incredibly, that had never happened before.”

Last week, Pence claimed credit for education improvement, saying that his entire legislative agenda as part of this “education session” was approved into law. He cited increased education funding (including pay for teacher performance), k-12 budget increases, a quarter billion dollars invested in career and vocational education, and an expansion of the voucher program as part of his legislative agenda that passed this session. “We wanted to do three things,” Pence told me last week. “We wanted to fund excellence, expand choice and fix what was broken.” Pence will also focus his reelection campaign on the cornerstone of his education platform, the career and vocational education that focuses on regional curriculum that fits into the needs of area business and industry, saying he has ushered in “genuine change.”

The Ritz/Pence policy showdowns create a potentially sensational contrast. But Ritz’s first challenge will be how she manages her resume and vision with Gregg, and to a lesser extent, Sen. Karen Tallian. None of the Democrats has more than $150,000 in the war chest. Gov. Pence has more than $3 million.

For Democrats to exploit Pence’s vulnerabilities, they will need a vision, money and unity once the primary concludes.

The columnist publishes at Find him on Twitter@hwypol and Howey Politics on Facebook.

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