Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz talked about the state of Indiana education to a group of educators Wednesday at the Jefferson County Democratic Headquarters. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com.)
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz talked about the state of Indiana education to a group of educators Wednesday at the Jefferson County Democratic Headquarters. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com.)
Indiana’s superintendent of schools Glenda Ritz was in Madison on Wednesday to talk about the positive things happening in the state’s public school system.

The incumbent, who will face Republican candidate Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, in the fall, talked with teachers, principals and educators from a three-county area about her “Imagine 2020” initiative.

Though Ritz is running as a Democrat, “education is really not a partisan issue, it’s a nonpartisan issue,” she said. “I really feel strongly that people go to the polls and vote for people that they really can identify with – values and issues. And there’s really nothing more important than our public education system.”

One of the foundations of her tenure so far has been spending two or three days a week traveling to communities throughout the state to meet with teachers, students and residents to discuss what her office can do to help at the local level.

“I have a different philosophy than some others at the statehouse,” she said, explaining that many seem to believe state government is at a higher level than local government and that the two don’t mix.

“That is not my philosophy, and it never has been. I believe in a real grassroots support system,” she said.

Her office, she said, has worked to establish an outreach division manned by coordinators that live and work in the region they support, “who care about their communities and care about their schools.”

Their role, she said, is to keep her office informed about what kinds of state support local districts need.

The initiative is working, she said.

“We’ve expanded it every year, and in the first year alone, 103 schools went from low-performing to high-performing,” she said. “That does not happen by accident. That happens with intentional support and resources put into place for schools.”

Her goal is to get support services directly to children who need them, especially those in communities like Austin, which is afflicted with a severe drug-abuse problem and is dealing with an HIV epidemic.

“We have children that have needs, and we have to get rid of the barriers” that exist for serving those needs, such as mental health care, she said. She has hired the first “outreach director of systems of care,” and hopes to hire more of these directors statewide. “The more services we can get directly to our kids, the better learners they’ll be and the better opportunities they’ll have.”

Other priorities include quality universal pre-kindergarten for every 4-year-old in the state. “We can do that with less than 1 percent of our budget,” she said. “I’m not talking about any new money, any new taxes.”

She also is working to change the way schools and students are assessed, which means “less time for testing and more time for learning,” she said. “We have now been given more flexibility from the federal government to look at more innovative ways to gather data with our children to know where they are (educationally).”

For State Board of Education’s Assessment Committee, “this testing piece is the most important thing we’re going to talk about. Because it affects everything that happens, including the assigning of grades to our schools,” she said. “I want to streamline it. I want to make sure that it’s appropriate for children and make sure we know where they are actually performing, instead of just from a pass/fail test.

“Every educator in this room can tell you (which student) is going to pass or fail an ISTEP test before we spend millions of dollars giving it. And it’s a fact.”

Ritz also has been working on initiatives to ensure middle school and high school students are getting opportunities to explore careers, see what the job market looks like and understand what additional training or education they will need to get where they want to be.

Today, “when you’re done with high school, that diploma doesn’t mean you’re done. It means you’re getting started,” she said.

Ritz said she also would like to revamp the method of funding public schools in Indiana.

Every year, 52 percent of the state budget goes to k-12 education and used to go exclusively to traditional public schools.

“It now goes to four types of schools – traditional public schools, two sets of public charter schools, and School Choice, which is tax dollars going to private education,” when students of parents who qualify for vouchers are accepted into their programs, she said, adding she believes it’s crucial that the state study, in-depth, the voucher system to determine if it’s really helping students academically.

Imagine 2020 also includes the goal of offering high-quality pre-kindergarten education, statewide, regardless if it’s offered by public schools or private daycare centers. “We don’t care who offers it; it’s gotta be quality. That’s what it’s about.”

She also wants to get rid of the grading system the legislature established for school districts, based on student performance on ISTEP assessment tests, which she believes would help close the “graduation gap.”

The assessment-testing system affects “every child, every family and every educator, since we’ve attached all the high stakes to it, including the compensation of our educators. It affects everything that happens, including the assigning of grades to our schools,” she said.

“It’s not about test scores. It’s about if our kids are on track to graduate with the skills they need,” she said. “Every year, we send kids out with less opportunities to go forward, because a 3.7 grade average from an ‘F’ school won’t be treated the same as a 3.7 from an ‘A’ school. Believe me, that’s not right. Kids should (be evaluated) on their own merits, their own work, their own grades, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with the grade we put on our schools.”