Swarens: Glenda Ritz says she doesn’t do politics

She is Indiana’s most interesting politician.

Interesting because, as an unknown and an underdog, she pulled off a monumental upset two years ago to win election as the state’s top educator. Interesting because since then she’s been a lonely blue island in an ocean of Statehouse red. Interesting because she sparks a passion and gratitude among her supporters that few career politicians can muster. Interesting because she’s feuded with opponents relentlessly, at times to the point of absurdity, for two years running, and a good dramatic comedy is always intriguing to watch.

Yet, Glenda Ritz looks at me, across a wood table inside her cozy Statehouse office, and insists that she doesn’t do politics.

“I’m laser-focused on what kids need inside the classroom,” she said. “I’m not about the politics.”

But what about the lawsuit she filed last year against the State Board of Education, a panel she chairs? What about her sudden walkout from a heated board meeting a year ago? What about the letters to the editor that Ritz and board members have fired off to newspapers complaining about each other’s attitudes and actions? What about her endorsements and campaign support for Democratic legislative candidates this year?

Isn’t all of that political? Ritz says no, at least not on her side of the equation.

It’s Mike Pence and his crew — specifically the staff of the governor-created Center for Education and Career Innovation — who inject politics into the equation. “We would be moving along a lot quicker (in improving student achievement) if I didn’t have to constantly deal with the interference of the governor’s agency,” she said.

For her part, Ritz said, she’s all about the children.

Listen. That sizzle you now hear is the sound of Republicans spontaneously bursting into flames.

Hold on to the fire extinguisher. There’s more.

Given the antics that have swirled around her since 2012, I asked Ritz if she has any regrets. Anything she wishes she had said or done differently?

She hesitated momentarily before saying no. “I feel like I’ve handled everything in a professional manner,” Ritz said. “The politics will be the politics. When I leave any meeting where there’s been conflict, I think about what I got done for kids, and I can honestly say to you, that in every meeting, I got accomplished what should have been accomplished for kids.”

The implication, of course, is that all of the ugliness, all of the political distractions, have been generated from the other side. Ritz and her team have been as pure as a first-grader’s love of recess, and any confession and correction need to emanate from Team Pence.

Now, the “it’s you, it’s not me” approach isn’t exactly conducive to healing a fractured relationship. And Ritz is politically savvy enough to know that.

Still, I hope that Pence, the State Board and others are willing to swallow hard and look beyond her passive-aggressive posturing.

Because the stakes for Indiana have never been higher.

Many of today’s students, perhaps most, are preparing for careers that don’t yet exist. If forecasts are right, a technological wave is building that will radically alter all sorts of workplaces within a decade or so. Think about how the digital revolution has transformed how you consume music, movies, books, newspapers and TV, and then project that scale of change on how cars are made, how goods are delivered, even how meals are ordered and prepared in restaurants.

To adapt, and to thrive, amid the waves of change, students will need to learn how to think, and to develop the desire and ability to become life-long learners. That’s where Ritz, and many other educators, see a disconnect between how they want to approach teaching and the demands placed on them to prep kids for standardized tests.

“We’ve got some awfully good test-takers,” Ritz said. “But we need thinkers.”

Agreed. And I suspect Mike Pence, and the State Board, and the dreaded CECI staff, and even the doubly dreaded “corporate reformers” would agree, too.

The problem, of course, isn’t that we can’t settle on the destination. We all want to arrive at Great Thinkers, Ind. It’s that we argue incessantly about how to get there. And finally reaching agreement on a shared route is an educational and political challenge of the first order.

Before Glenda Ritz dismissed class for the day, I raised my hand for a final question. What does her political future hold?

Although she recently announced plans to run for a second term as state superintendent, what about pursuing a promotion? Democrats, after all, still need someone to challenge Pence in the governor’s race in 2016, and the party’s bench is as depleted as the Pacers’.

Her initial response to that question was a classic politician’s non-answer. Everything but a clear yes or no.

How about simply saying: “I have no plans or desire to run for governor?” Her second try: “I enjoy being state superintendent.”

Not an emphatic no, but close enough.

The political reality is that Ritz isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and Republicans, education reformers and all the others who continue to clash with her need to accept that.

Because it’s not about Glenda Ritz.

It should be, as she says, all about what’s best for the kids.

Contact Swarens at tim.swarens@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @tswarens.