The Tuesday night of the general election, Steve Starzyk was texting friends as Indiana’s votes were tallied and broadcast.
But he wasn’t sending messages about the presidential or gubernatorial races. He was paying the most attention to the race between incumbent Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz.
“I’ve never been nervous about a political race before in my life,” he said.
Starzyk has taught in the social studies department at Elkhart Central High School for 14 years, teaching eight years at Elkhart Memorial before that.
“I think there was quite the outcry from educators that Mr. Bennett did not support public education,” he said. Teachers got the word out on social media and through everyday conversations. Starzyk said he knew only one teacher who didn’t back Ritz.
In the end, Ritz brought in more than 134,000 votes more than Bennett.
Starzyk called Ritz’ win “a feel good victory” and hopes she’s able to give a voice to Indiana’s educators, but knows it will be challenging to work with a future governor who has applauded Bennett’s direction.
“Without support from the governor and legislature, I don’t know how she can move too much forward,” he said. “I hope Glenda has some guts because she’s going to need them.”
Under Bennett’s administration, Indiana has implemented a reading test that third-grade students must pass to continue on to fourth-grade reading, a new teacher evaluation system, a new A-F school grading formula and a voucher program to help low-income children attend private schools, among other programs and policies.
Several local educators, and some from across the state, expressed their frustration with Bennett’s handling of education in Indiana leading up to the election.
Middlebury Superintendent Jane Allen did not want to say who she supported in the election, but did acknowledge that many educators were unhappy with Bennett’s leadership.
“What this vote said more than anything is that this was not a vote for Glenda Ritz, but against Tony Bennett,” Allen said.
Bennett’s initiatives are not all bad, she explained, but may have needed more research, more time to implement and more funding to carry out.
“Tony Bennett seems to have ramrodded things” and often without funding to properly carry out, she said.
For example, Middlebury is using federal grant money to provide training for teachers to transition to the Common Core State Standards, a new set of state standards that Indiana adopted under Bennett’s leadership. The standards bring a new state standardized test in 2014.
After a few years of having to “jump through his hoops,” Jeremiah Wade, a Goshen High School English teacher, described Bennett as “very much a politician interested in getting numbers and making progress on his watch.”
The state’s new A-F grading system seems very “arbitrary” and could be more comprehensive like some other school quality measurements, taking into account students’ socioeconomic and language background, he said.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that we need a way of measuring student progress,” but not how Bennett chose to, Wade said.
Like Starzyk, Wade felt a responsibility to inform others about his experiences and why he supported Ritz.
“I care about politics, obviously, but there are few races that I feel affect me daily like this one, because it’s my career, it’s my livelihood,” he said.
The election is over, but grassroot efforts to slow educational reforms in Indiana and show support for Ritz continue.
More than 6,600 people have signed an online petition on Change.org calling for Governor Mitch Daniels, Governor-elect Mike Pence and other legislators to recognize Ritz’ win as a rejection of the education reform led by Bennett. It also points out that Ritz collected about 100,000 more votes in her race than Pence did in the gubernatorial race.
Ritz will be working with Pence, a Republican, and the state board of education he appoints.
Several educators said they were hopeful that, even if Ritz doesn’t reverse some of Bennett’s policies, that she could slow down the change.
Elkhart Superintendent Rob Haworth pointed out during a talk to the Elkhart County League of Women Voters that some of Bennett’s policies, including the school grading system, are a part of Indiana Code and therefore out of Ritz’ control to change.
“She will not have the ability by herself to override Indiana Code,” Haworth said. “What she can do, though, and our hope is, that she can slow the pace of change for those of us in education and that her interpretation of those policies would be different.” He encouraged people to talk to legislators about those education pieces that are a part of Indiana law.
“Do I think that Dr. Bennett did some good things? You bet. Do I think that he didn’t invite teachers to be at the table, that he did not invite other educators to be at the table? You bet,” Haworth told the group. “Do I hope that Glenda invites other educators as we move forward? That’s our goal — that we can once again sit at the table and give great input.”