Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, seemed to walk back her support of school vouchers at a candidate debate this week. She also came out forcefully for better pay and more autonomy for teachers.
But that may be too little, too late to win her much support from educators, often a key constituency for anyone who wants to be elected the state’s chief school officer.
McCormick is challenging Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who won the loyalty of many teachers by slaying the education-reform dragon Tony Bennett in the 2012 election and later by standing up to Gov. Mike Pence and his appointed State Board of Education.
At the debate, which took place in Fort Wayne and can be watched on the State Impact Indiana website, McCormick attacked Ritz for sloppy management of the Indiana Department of Education and poor communication with school districts. Ritz defended her record and pointed to her Vision 2020 plan for universal pre-K, less testing and improved high school graduation rates.
Ritz’s supporters have cast McCormick as “Tony Bennett 2.0,” a kinder, gentler version of the former superintendent, whom teachers loved to hate. McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, insists she’s just a professional educator who decided to run out of frustration.
“It is time we put students before politics, which has not happened for the last eight years,” she said.
That’s a smart statement, because going back eight years takes in Bennett’s tenure as well as Ritz’s. But the idea that you can remove politics from an elected office in this era of partisanship seems naïve if not dishonest. McCormick also implied she would be more effective than Ritz because she would have “partnerships” with Republican legislators. Well, that’s politics.
On the subject of vouchers, McCormick seemed to concede they take money away from public schools, a rejection of state GOP orthodoxy.
“Any program that takes monies away from K-12 public schools is a concern,” she said, adding that, if Indiana is going to provide vouchers for children to attend private schools, the legislature should appropriate separate funding for the program rather than diverting it from public schools.
She also expressed concern about the impact on school funding of Indiana’s property tax caps, another feather in the cap of former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican lawmakers.
I’d be a lot happier if McCormick completely disavowed her previous support for vouchers. Her position now seems to be that Republican legislators won’t roll back the voucher program, so why suggest it.
But Ritz and McCormick aren’t that far apart on some policy matters. Both want to reduce testing, although they have different ideas about what assessments should look like. Both dislike labeling schools with grades. McCormick sounds cautious about expanding pre-kindergarten while Ritz is all in; but ultimately, both call for universal, voluntary pre-K all within a few years.
When it comes to addressing Indiana’s teacher shortage, McCormick said she would be an effective advocate for the profession. “Pay matters,” she said, and “autonomy matters. Let teachers teach.” But better pay isn’t likely without help from Indiana’s tight-fisted legislature.
McCormick’s complaints about poor communication from the Department of Education may strike a chord with school administrators. But will teachers care? Ritz has been in the spotlight for four years, pushing back against vouchers, anti-teacher rhetoric and over-testing. She has sometimes seemed like public schools’ and teachers’ only champion in state government. That’s earned lots of support.
Ritz defeated Bennett in 2012 despite being outspent 5-to-1. This year, the figures are reversed: Ritz has raised more than three times as much money as McCormick.
Teachers’ unions have been the biggest donors to Ritz’s campaign, contributing $180,000. McCormick got $60,000 from the pro-voucher, anti-union Hoosiers for Quality Education. But she has attracted none of the out-of-state pro-charter and pro-voucher money that Bennett always managed to raise.
McCormick’s biggest backer is Indianapolis philanthropist and charter school founder Christel DeHaan, who has given $125,000. DeHaan has also contributed $200,000 to John Gregg, the Democratic candidate for governor. In this era of blind partisanship, that’s sort of cool.