Dysfunction and politics became a distraction, superintendent says

Jennifer McCormick ran for Indiana superintendent of public instruction in 2016 vowing to keep politics out of the office. She did her best, but it was too tall an order.

A state education governance system that McCormick calls “dysfunctional” has made it hard for her to do her job. And in recent months, her fellow Republicans have reportedly been talking among themselves about making the job an appointed one in 2020, likely removing her from office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

Last week, trying to calm the waters before the next legislative session starts in January, McCormick announced that she will not seek re-election when her term ends in two years.

“When we got into the race, I did it for sake of kids, for helping with the field and to try and calm things down and ease that disruption,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I said, if it ever came to where that wasn’t the case, I would need to re-evaluate.”

McCormick took office after a turbulent four-year period in which Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz feuded openly with Republican Gov. Mike Pence and his appointed State Board of Education. Pence and the GOP-dominated legislature transferred considerable authority over education to the state board, creating an awkward governance structure that McCormick inherited.

“It’s just very polarized,” McCormick said. “You have our agency, which is in charge of implementation, and that’s a huge responsibility. You have the State Board of Education, and they’re there for policy, yet they’re meddling in implementation. And you have the governor’s office, and the State Board of Education is really an extension of that. It’s just tough to balance all of that.”

The superintendent is, by statute, a member of the State Board of Education, but McCormick clashed with other members as they pushed to implement new high-school graduation requirements despite concerns voiced by educators and tried to make late changes in the Department of Education’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The last straw for McCormick may have been a behind-the-scenes effort to have the superintendent be appointed by the governor, not elected by the people, starting in 2020.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and Republicans in the Indiana House tried to enact such a law in 2017, but they lacked the votes to approve the change in the Senate. They settled for a compromise that would make the position appointed starting in 2024, potentially giving McCormick two elected terms in office.

They may have thought that, with a Republican superintendent, they could keep pushing an agenda of expanded school choice via vouchers and charter schools. But McCormick, a former Yorktown Community Schools superintendent, has been a forceful advocate for public schools. She has criticized Indiana’s voucher program and called for more oversight of charter schools and their authorizers. Recently, she has suggested that private schools that receive voucher funding shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or gender identity — and many do.

“I do understand there are certain students who benefit from choice, as long as it is a quality choice,” she said. “But I feel strongly about the power of education and especially public education. That can be frustrating for some in the special-interest groups.”

With the next legislative session due to start in three months, some lawmakers and advocacy groups have been talking quietly about moving up the date for an appointed superintendent, and the talk was becoming a distraction from the Department of Education’s work, McCormick said. I asked if we could assume influential school-choice advocates, such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Hoosiers for Quality Education, were making the push. “I think that’s fair,” she said.

Elected officials could have squelched the talk but haven’t, she said. That presumably means Holcomb, the Republican governor, and GOP leaders of the House and Senate.

McCormick announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election during a news conference in which she unveiled an ambitious 2019 legislative agenda, including increased school funding, expansion of pre-kindergarten education and more accountability for charter schools.

“We’re going to work hard” for the next two years, she said. “We have our strategic plan, we have a work plan that’s very aggressive. We’re going to continue to fight for opportunities for students.”

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