Educator or politician?

Jennifer McCormick, seeking the Republican nomination for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, says she wants to “take the politics out” of the office. Good luck with that. Especially when, as Chalkbeat Indiana reported, she announced her candidacy surrounded by representatives of Stand for Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, some of the most political outfits in the state.

Candidates for Indiana superintendent run as Democrats or Republicans – and they run as part of a slate of candidates for state office, including governor – so the race will likely be political in every sense.

But let’s assume McCormick, the Yorktown Community Schools superintendent who is challenging Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz, is being honest. Here is some unsolicited advice:

  • Keep your distance from ideologues, especially those of the school-choice-and-free-educational-market variety who have an outsized influence on state Republican politics. If the Walton family and their ilk come offering big campaign donations, run the other way. Fast.
  • Decide and make clear that, as superintendent, you will be a forceful advocate for the traditional public schools that nine of 10 Indiana students attend. Let your public school flag fly. Don’t let the charter-and-voucher tail wag the policy dog.
  • Be careful about criticizing Ritz for being “political.” To her supporters, it’s crystal clear that Gov. Mike Pence, Republican legislators and State Board of Education members are the ones who brought the politics with their relentless attacks on the Democratic superintendent.
  • Better yet, reach out to Ritz’s supporters, including the teachers’ unions. They won’t back you, but if you win, you should want to work with them. Make the election about effectiveness and transparency, and make it clear you’re not just a kinder, gentler Tony Bennett.

There is in fact a model for approaching the job of state superintendent in a nonpartisan way. SueEllen Reed, a Republican, held the office from 1993-2009, a remarkable four terms, and managed to work well with office-holders of both parties while focusing on the needs of students.

Reed, a former Rushville, Ind., school superintendent, initially won the state office with considerable support from teachers, who considered her an educator, not a politician. It helped that her 1992 opponent could be cast as a politician and not an educator. He was Stan Jones, a former legislator and an aide to Gov. Evan Bayh who went on to a respectable career as Indiana commissioner of higher education and is now president of the nonprofit Complete College America.

But it’s only partially true that Reed got along with politicians of both parties. She seemed to do fine with Democratic governors Bayh, Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan. But by some accounts, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels deemed her insufficiently political and bumped her off the GOP ticket in 2008.

She was replaced by Bennett, whose politics and bombast were so offensive to teachers and parents that he lost in 2012 to Ritz, despite outspending her 5-to-1.

So McCormick has the right instinct to think Hoosiers may want a state superintendent who isn’t political. But she needs to persuade the voters that she means what she says.

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