Monday’s rally at the Indiana Statehouse was about more than concerns over this year’s iteration of ISTEP standardized testing. Although ISTEP testing and other public education issues such as the Common Core and teacher accountability were certainly present as topics of speeches, participants’ signs, and conversations, a much larger issue was at the forefront: protection of the citizenry’s votes. The tension between Indiana Governor Mike Pence and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has made state (Education Battle Flares between Pence and Ritz; Why Glenda Ritz and Mike Pence are at War) and national news (It’s a Mess in Indiana; Indiana: Governor Pence Acts to Crush Glenda Ritz). This conflict extends beyond ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans; it has become a fight for the preservation of democracy. 1.3 million Hoosiers voted for Glenda Ritz to serve in her current capacity, which includes acting as chair of the State Board of Education. However, Pence and the Indiana General Assembly are working to reduce Ritz’s elected role by taking away her chairpersonship from that Board. Indiana HB-1609 and SB-1 are the corresponding bills in the House and Senate that will take away this responsibility. HB-1609 states that the members of the State Board of Education, all of whom are appointed by the governor with the exception of the chairperson, the elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, will appoint one from among their member to serve as chair. SB-1 includes other issues relating to governance of the State Board of Education, and proposes the same adjustment to the selection of the chair.
On President’s Day, over 1,000 Indiana residents showed up at the Statehouse to make their stance on these proposed changes known. Rally participants could be heard chanting, “We stand with Ritz,” and “My vote counts” in the north atrium of the Statehouse. These chants resonated throughout three floors of the building as the participants filled the main floor and surrounded the balconies several circumferences deep on the two floors above. Most people wore some red article of clothing as red has become the color associated with a stand for public education. Protesters included teachers, parents, students, and others who supported public education, wanted to reinforce their choice for Ritz, and most importantly wanted to protect their vote.
While I, as a public school teacher, certainly wanted to be there to support public education, the bigger issue for me as a rally participant was the assault on the meaning of my vote. Changing Ritz’s position mid-term is like changing the rules in the middle of a game, and it sends a strong message to the electorate that your vote does not in fact matter. This move by the Indiana Governor via the General Assembly undermines the value this country places on democratic principles, the very principles that got them elected too. If the people in power can simply change the outcome when they don’t like the people’s choice, then why should citizens vote at all? We need to think long and hard about the greater implications of this political move beyond the short-term result of a changed job description for Glenda Ritz. Should the changes proposed in HB-1609 and SB-1 actually come to fruition, which seems likely to be the case, I fear we have started down a slippery slope where politics yet again interferes with the functioning of a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, and this time it will be to the devastating detriment of the people.
(To read more about the rally and continuing discussion surrounding Ritz’s position, search #Rally4Ritz and #istandwithRitz on Twitter.)
Shannon White, Public School Teacher