Myers would name ‘the absolute best person’ as education leader

Dr. Woody Myers wants to pay teachers more and cut back on the use of standardized tests to evaluate educators and schools. He wants to reconsider school vouchers and “pause” the expansion of charter schools. He would slow the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Woody Myers

Dr. Woody Myers

When it comes time to appoint the state’s secretary of education, Myers says he will name “the absolute best person we can find who wants to do the job without any hesitation and with skill and alacrity and knowledge and energy and the support of our teachers.”

It’s a platform that should appeal to supporters of public education, but the odds against him are long. Myers, the Democratic candidate for governor, is running an apparently uphill campaign against the well-funded Republican incumbent, Gov. Eric Holcomb.

I reached out to the three candidates for governor about their plans for appointing Indiana’s secretary of education. The position, currently called superintendent of public instruction, has been an elected office for over a century, but the legislature decided the governor should name the next school leader. That will give Indiana’s governor unusual control of education policy.

Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater didn’t reply. Holcomb’s campaign spokeswoman referred me to the governor’s comments to the Indianapolis Star and Chalkbeat Indiana. Myers’ campaign offered an interview, and we spoke Saturday by phone while he was traveling between engagements.

Myers, who has been endorsed by current Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, said it’s “very” important that the secretary of education have experience in public education, although he stopped short of calling it a make-or-break requirement.

“We’ve got to make sure, when that appointment is made, there’s absolute agreement that this person is really able to hit the ground running,” he said. “To me, it implies they’ve got to have a good understanding of how the system works today and what we need to do to make it work better.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb headsho

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Holcomb told Chalkbeat and the Star by email that he would choose a secretary of education who is “creative and is thinking about education in a holistic sense… meaning K-12, higher education, career training, and can collaborate with superintendents, principals, teacher organizations, and parents.”

On his campaign website, Holcomb touts his support for funding K-12 schools through the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Myers, a physician and the former Indiana and New York City health commissioner, also addressed other issues in the phone interview — including vouchers, which provide state funding for students who attend private schools and cost Indiana $172.8 million last year.

 “I think it could be time to reconsider,” Myers said. “I know they’ve had support in the legislature, but these are critical times, when dollars are short.” Myers said he had “no problem with parents wanting to send their kids to a private school … I just don’t think the taxpayer ought to fund the bill.”

Regarding charter schools, which are publicly funded by privately operated, Myers pointed to problems with two virtual schools that were found to have overbilled the state by $68 million by inflating their enrollment figures. He said state oversight isn’t working.

“It hurts the good charters to see the bad charters taking headlines,” he said. “My diagnosis is that those responsible for creating and overseeing charter schools are not doing their job well enough. It’s time to pause and wait until we get an even playing field, a better system of oversight.”

Myers has criticized Holcomb for reopening the state’s economy too soon and for encouraging schools to reopen. Most Indiana school districts are now providing in-person instruction. Myers thinks that’s a mistake, and his campaign website suggests stricter metrics for reopening.

“I do worry there are too many schools that are open today in neighborhoods or counties that have rising number of cases,” he said. “If I were in charge of decision-making today, I would roll it back. Some schools would be completely online. Some would be hybrid. Very few would be five days a week.”

Myers argues that Indiana’s ILEARN testing program and its predecessor, ISTEP, have failed.

“I don’t say we aren’t going to have accountability,” he said. “I just say the testing — what test to use, how to use it, when to use it, what we’re going to do with the information it provides and the action plan that results – needs to be overhauled.”

Does Myers have a chance? The conventional wisdom says no. Holcomb has a ton of money to spend, and Myers has very little. (Political pros would say he should spend more time raising campaign cash and less doing interviews with blogs like this one). Some polling has suggested Trump-loving Republicans will defect to Rainwater because of Holcomb’s mask mandate, but that seems unlikely.

On the other hand, few observers thought that underfunded Democrat Glenda Ritz could knock off Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in 2012. Strange things have happened when it comes to education and politics.

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