Sen. Eddie Melton said it made obvious sense to invite Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick to join him on a statewide listening tour, even if they do represent different political parties.
“It should not be about Republican or Democrat at the end of the day when we talk about our children,” he said Thursday during a stop in Bloomington.
Indeed, 12 years ago, no one would have given a second thought to officials from opposite sides of the aisle sharing a stage to talk about schools. But times have changed, and education has become a highly partisan topic. Also, Melton may seek the Democratic nomination for governor. And McCormick is increasingly on the outs with her fellow Republican office-holders.
With 16 stops in July and August, the tour is generating some buzz, politically and policy-wise.
In Bloomington, Melton and McCormick met with several dozen people at City Hall. They fielded questions and comments about teacher pay, pre-K programs and other topics and shared their frustrations with the GOP-controlled legislature.
Melton blamed gerrymandering for giving Republicans supermajorities in the legislature – 40-10 in the Senate and 67-33 in the House. The result is that Democrats often can’t get their proposals considered. Melton tried but failed to get lawmakers to consider bills to give teachers a 5% raise and lift a work requirement for Indiana’s state pre-K program.
“We have a right to have these debates take place,” he said.
McCormick was elected state superintendent in 2016 and could have been up for re-election next year, but legislators voted to have the governor appoint the chief education officer in 2021. McCormick said that gives too much power to the governor, who also appoints most of the State Board of Education.
Her major concern, she said, is that legislators and the state board adopt far-reaching policy changes without listening to teachers and school administrators.
“Policy must be made with practitioner voice,” she said. “And when it’s not, things become a mess.”
Legislative leaders boasted that they approved historic increases in school funding this year, raising K-12 spending by 2.5% each of the next two years. But Melton and McCormick said Indiana is playing catch-up after years of lackluster funding that put the state at the bottom for teacher pay increases.
“Show me a state’s budget, and I’ll show you what a state cares about,” Melton said.
McCormick said Hoosiers expect their leaders to consider reasonable requests. She cited the example of the Indiana Department of Education’s proposal to merge the third-grade IREAD-3 and ILEARN exams to reduce testing time and pressure on students. The idea fell flat with legislators.
“You have to have an approach where leadership is willing to listen,” she said, “versus ‘I’m getting campaign donations from X, Y and Z.’”