Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction, says she rejects politics and wants to provide effective management for the Indiana Department of Education. But the message isn’t convincing when her campaign supporters include some very political people.
Or when McCormick joins them in embracing Indiana’s controversial school voucher program.
And let’s face it: Making and administering state education policy is a political process. It’s probably always been that way, but it became much more so when Republican Tony Bennett was elected to the office in 2008 and began using politics as a club to reshape education.
McCormick, the school superintendent in Yorktown, Ind., since 2010, is challenging Glenda Ritz, the Democrat who upset Bennett in the 2012 election. She hasn’t yet provided a lot of specifics about policy, but she supports Indiana’s voucher program, which provides state funding to send children to private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.
“I’ve been a huge proponent of parents being allowed that choice,” she told Chalkbeat Indiana.
That should be a deal-breaker for many people who support public education. Leaving aside the matter of taxpayer funding of faith-based schools, vouchers cost the state up to $53.2 million last year, according to the Indiana Department of Education. That’s money that could have gone to public schools.
It’s probably true that vouchers have become such an intrinsic part of the Indiana Republican Party’s agenda that a superintendent candidate is unlikely to get the GOP nomination without supporting them. That’s an expectation that came with Bennett and his sponsor, former Gov. Mitch Daniels. The previous superintendent, Republican Suellen Reed, did not support vouchers.
Ritz won in 2012 with overwhelming support from teachers and parents, and she has worked hard to keep their loyalty, taking pro-teacher and pro-public education positions in her term of office.
But McCormick is right to suggest that communication from the Indiana Department of Education, which Ritz administers, hasn’t always been as clear and prompt as it could have been. She can also blame Ritz for glitches in the administration of ISTEP exams, problems with the allocation of federal Title I funding, feuds with the State Board of Education and other matters.
Ritz’s biggest support, over $100,000, came from the Indiana State Teachers Association. McCormick’s largest contribution to date was $75,000 from philanthropist and charter school supporter Christel DeHaan. (DeHaan also gave $200,000 to John Gregg, the Democratic candidate for governor).
McCormick won’t have trouble getting money if it looks like she’s in a position to win. Her campaign has prominent backing from Hoosiers for Quality Education, a pro-voucher advocacy group that is a generous supporter of Republican candidates. It has given her $30,000 so far.
That group, in turn, gets the bulk of its campaign money from the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that is largely financed by wealthy, out-of-state backers of vouchers and charter schools. The Walton siblings, owners of Wal-Mart, have given the group over $6.4 million in recent years, according to Indiana campaign finance reports.
But the more money McCormick gets from these organizations, the more tightly she will embrace their agenda – just as Ritz can be counted on to support the goals of the teachers’ unions. It would be nice to think the candidates weren’t neck-deep in politics. But it wouldn’t be true.