Indiana Republicans act as if they decided to draft House Bill 1005 after Jennifer McCormick announced she wouldn’t seek re-election. But there’s plenty to suggest McCormick would have been pushed out even if she hadn’t agreed to step aside.
Unfortunately, evidence about who lobbied for the change, and why, is likely to remain secret.
Under HB 1005, Indiana’s governor will appoint the chief state school officer starting in 2021. The bill was approved by largely party-line votes – 70-29 in the House and 29-19 in the Senate. It just needs Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature to become law, and that should come any day.
The change it makes is significant. The position has been an elected one since it was created in 1852. With the power to appoint the superintendent and the State Board of Education, Indiana’s governor will have unusual power over the making and execution of education policy.
Prodded by Holcomb, lawmakers tried in 2017 to make the schools chief an appointed position. But they didn’t have the votes, so they settled for a compromise: McCormick could seek re-election and serve two terms, and the position would become appointed starting in 2025.
When McCormick announced in October 2018 that she wouldn’t run again, she cited behind-the-scenes efforts to move up the timetable for the change. She said the politics were becoming a distraction, and she took re-election off the table to focus on her job.
Attempting to find out who was lobbying behind the scenes, I filed a public-records request with Holcomb’s staff for emails on the topic. (Legislators have exempted their own emails from the state public-records law).
The governor’s office provided only one email: a May 2018 message from Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, citing a newsletter from the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The chief of staff of the State Board of Education forwarded it with a note that an article in the newsletter “exhibits why it is so important for the Governor to have the ability to appoint the SPI.”
Note, this was five months before McCormick announced she wouldn’t seek re-election.
There were other records that met the description of what I was asking for, the governor’s office said. But it chose to keep them secret because they were “advisory or deliberative material,” one of the exceptions from disclosure under Indiana’s Access to Public Records.
McCormick, a Republican, was elected in 2016 after a campaign in which she received a lot of support from advocates for charter schools and vouchers, including the Chamber of Commerce and, especially, the advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education. But the former Yorktown, Indiana, school superintendent turned out to be a forceful and effective advocate for public schools.
You can imagine that some of her backers were disappointed and wanted her out, sooner rather than later.