Republicans may be elevating Ritz’s star power (copy)

INDIANAPOLIS — State Sen. Jean Leising went to a local Farm Bureau breakfast expecting to be quizzed on a complicated tax relief bill for farmers.

Instead, the Republican from a rural district was bombarded with questions about why her GOP colleagues appeared dead set on stripping power from the Democratic state schools chief, Glenda Ritz.

“That’s all they wanted to talk about,” Leising said.

A few days later, Leising joined a group of seven Republican senators (out of 40) who voted against a measure to remove Ritz from her high-profile role as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education.

“I do think the board makeup needs to be dealt with,” Leising said of the politicized and dysfunctional relationship between Ritz and the board, whose members are appointed by the governor. “But the timing is all wrong.”

Sen. Randy Head of Logansport thought so, too. He’s been bombarded on Facebook with a bipartisan assault of pro-Ritz supporters protesting a series of Republican actions they see as anti-Ritz.

The common theme in their complaints, he said, was that it appeared to be an abuse of political power.

Neither Leising nor Head are Ritz supporters, but both were willing to defy party leadership, who picked the measure to remove Ritz as chairwoman to be Senate Bill 1, a clear indicator of priority.

In an era of Republican-driven reform that’s tied testing to teacher pay, student retention and school ratings, they see that it’s Ritz who comes across as a champion of less testing and more local school flexibility. And the message seems to resonate across party lines, outside Interstate 465.

Senate Bill 1 may be more symbolic than significant. It doesn’t remove Ritz from her elected office as state superintendent of public instruction, nor does it take away her power to run the Indiana Department of Education. It does give authority to the state Board of Education to pick its own leader.

Leising and Head worry that the proposal may do much more. By insisting on its passage, Republicans elevate Ritz to martyr-like status, which is something that she and Democrats might capitalize on in the next election.

Ritz was largely unknown when she won her office two years ago. Her upset victory was seen as a referendum on her prickly predecessor, education-reform champion Tony Bennett.

“Nobody really knew Glenda Ritz two years ago,” Leising said. “Now everybody seems to. This has to be pushing her name recognition way up.”

Joe Losco, co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, affirms that.

In 2013, the center conducted its annual Hoosier Survey after Ritz was in office just a few months. It found that 77 percent of those polled didn’t know enough about Ritz to have an opinion of her.

Last year — after months of open battles between Ritz and the state board and Gov. Mike Pence — only 28 percent polled said the same thing.

Amid the buildup to last week’s vote on Senate Bill 1, Ritz was featured prominently in media coverage, in part because of a pro-Ritz rally that drew hundreds to the Statehouse despite a looming snowstorm. More than a handful of signs proclaimed “Ritz for Governor,” a notion that she’s not entirely stamped down.

“That’s one thing for sure: People will know her name now,” Losco said. “Though whether or not that’s for advancing cause of education or deterring it remains to be seen.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.