Grateful for in-person school

This post was first published Sept. 26 as a guest column in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times.

Given the choice of having fully online schooling, 70% of families in the Monroe County Community School Corp. have opted instead to send their children to school in person. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Enrolling your child in the local public school has always been an act of profound trust. Families trust schools to keep their children safe from accidents, bullies, shootings and threats they haven’t imagined. They trust schools to build character and have a positive influence on behavior. Fundamentally, they trust schools and teachers to understand what students need to know and to make sure they learn it.

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Indiana schools chief backing Democrats

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s Republican superintendent of public instruction, has been making waves by endorsing Democratic candidates for state office. What’s up with that?

First, McCormick can make a credible case that she didn’t desert the party, the party deserted her. There was a time when Indiana Republicans supported public schools; at least, they supported their local public schools. The shift came in 2011, when Gov. Mitch Daniels got the GOP-controlled legislature to adopt school vouchers and expand charter schools. Today, many Hoosier Republicans have come very close to embracing the late economist Milton Friedman’s vision of a “universal” voucher program of unrestricted state support for private schools.

But McCormick, former superintendent of Indiana’s Yorktown school district, has been an outspoken advocate for public schools. Every time she spoke out for public school districts, you could see Republicans edging further away. When she announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek re-election, she implied that she was being elbowed aside. Legislators promptly changed the law so Indiana’s governor will appoint the state’s next chief education officer, starting in 2021.

As McCormick advocated for public schools, she found common ground with Democrats. She joined state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, on a statewide listening tour as he explored seeking the nomination for governor. Now she has endorsed the Democratic candidates for governor, Woody Myers, and attorney general, Jonathan Weinzapfel, as well as three Democratic candidates for the legislature.

Republicans responded by calling her the worst name they could think of: Democrat. “It’s not surprising that a Democrat is endorsing a Democrat,” state GOP spokesman Jake Oakman said. “Jennifer has been angling for a position in a possible future Democrat administration for months now.” (Note the patronizing tone. She is not Dr. McCormick or Superintendent McCormick but “Jennifer.”).

I guess it is conceivable that McCormick could join a Democratic administration, maybe as U.S. secretary of education in a Biden administration.

A position in a Woody Myers administration seems unlikely. Myers, a former Indiana and New York City health commissioner, has solid qualifications. But he has little name recognition and less money. Holcomb is widely considered to be a popular governor, and his campaign has over $8 million compared to $678,000 for Myers.

Some pundits suggest that Trump-enamored Republicans, outraged by Holcomb’s mask mandate, could defect to Libertarian Donald Rainwater, putting the race in play. But that seems like a long shot.

McCormick, meanwhile, has told reporters she still considers herself a Republican. She told the Indy Star that some Republicans had asked for her support, “but at this point, I’ve chosen to endorse those candidates who I feel will support public education and not be owned by their donors.”

That’s a telling comment. When McCormick won her 2016 election over one-term Democrat Glenda Ritz, she had generous financial backing from voucher and charter school advocates – most prominently from a group associated with Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. secretary of education.

It’s easy to imagine those groups tried to put the screws to McCormick to support their favored policies, and that they couldn’t have been happy when she didn’t. When McCormick talks about donors wanting to “own” elected officials, she probably knows whereof she speaks.

Virtual school or ‘blended’ school?

Is the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School a virtual charter school or a blended charter school? It’s always been hard to tell, and it still is – even more so now that the school is offering its students a fully virtual option in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early this year, the Indiana State Board of Education ruled the school had been operating as a virtual charter school. That was apparently illegal. The school’s authorizer is the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district, and Indiana law bars school districts from authorizing virtual charter schools.

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Court affirms McCormick’s position on private school funding

Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Jennifer McCormick was on solid legal ground when she rejected federal guidance on distributing CARES Act funding to private schools. Three federal courts have now made that clear.

Most recently, in a decision that applies nationwide, a judge ruled that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was wrong when she and the U.S. Department of Education tried to divert more funding to private schools than Congress intended.

“In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich. “It declared that relief funding shall be provided to private schools ‘in the same manner as provided’ (in federal school funding law). Contrary to the Department’s interim final rule, that cannot mean the opposite of what it says.”

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Teachers, flag burning, BLM

It was big news 53 years ago when the Bloomfield, Indiana, school board fired a 22-year-old teacher at the local high school. Her offense: making a controversial remark in the classroom.

This was in 1967, and opposition to the Vietnam War was in its very early stages. An English instructor at Indiana State University had burned an American flag in the classroom. Although he claimed his point was to demonstrate the power of symbols, the public was outraged.

But at Bloomfield High School, first-year teacher Patricia Reilly, a recent ISU graduate, told her students that she didn’t see anything wrong with the act. The students, most likely, were stunned. One wrote a  letter to the local newspaper, which published it without using the student’s name.

Then the American Legion jumped into the fray. In a resolution, the local post demanded that the school district “take conclusive action by termination of the teacher’s contract immediately and prevent said teacher from teaching in Bloomfield schools again.” The school board voted to fire her.

I know about this because Johns Hopkins education professor Jonathan Plucker sent me a copy of the Bloomington Tribune newspaper from April 26, 1967. His friend had come across it while cleaning out some old files. Presumably, it had been saved because of the story about the teacher.

“Bloomfield Teacher Is Fired,” blares the giant headline across the top of the front page. (For non-locals, Bloomfield is about 30 miles from Bloomington. The paper wouldn’t normally carry Bloomfield news).

The newspaper itself is a real period piece. Journalistic conventions were a bit different in 1967: The Bloomfield teacher is referred to as Mrs. James E. Reilly. The paper is crammed with local news, ranging from stories on the upcoming primary elections to a list of admissions and dismissals at the hospital. On the wire pages, there’s a hodgepodge of national and world news, including a bizarre story from Los Angeles about a “tall, husky youth” who tried to poke his eyes out after taking LSD.

Another element that dates the paper is that it includes a lot of labor news. Workers at the local Westinghouse capacitor factory had reportedly been on strike for 147 days. In Marion, Indiana, striking RCA workers had barricaded entrances and knocked down a security guard.

Which leads back to the story of the Bloomfield teacher – because this is a Labor Day story, in a way. Would the tale have played out any differently if it had occurred a few years later, after the teachers’ union movement picked up steam in Indiana?

Teachers in Indiana didn’t get collective bargaining rights until 1973, when the legislature enacted Public Law 217. Would it have mattered if the teacher had a contract or a union to back her up?

Maybe not. Even today there’s news about school districts playing politics with what teachers can say and do – like the Texas teacher who was suspended for decorating her virtual classroom with a Black Lives Matter poster and another proclaiming it a “welcoming space for everyone.”

When I first read the 1967 newspaper story, I imagined it as a tragedy: a young, idealistic teacher driven from the classroom by mean-spirited politics. But then I came across an obituary for Patricia L. Reilly, who had a 33-year teaching career in Indianapolis, Decatur Township and, yes, Bloomfield public schools. She died in 2014 in Florida at age 69.

“Her interest in theater and children allowed her to combine both passions into writing and directing plays,” the obituary says. “As well she loved constructive sewing, music, reading and writing.”

I’m glad she didn’t let the American Legion drive her from a profession she clearly loved. I’ll bet many of her students, had they known the story, would have felt the same way.

State board opts for full school funding for fall

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called on the State Board of Education to delay the fall 2020 enrollment “count day” to address worries about school funding in the coronavirus era. Instead, the board opted for a different approach – and arguably a better one.

Instead of postponing the count, the board decided Wednesday to have its executive director adjust the state school funding formula “to ensure full anticipated funding for students receiving virtual education due to COVID-19,” in the words of a news release.

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