I will miss Jennifer McCormick

Today marks the end of the Jennifer McCormick era in Indiana education. I have a feeling we will appreciate her more and more now that she has left her job as the state’s education leader.

McCormick is the last person to hold the title superintendent of public instruction, a position that dates from the 1800s. Effective today, Indiana’s chief education officer will be called secretary of education.

Jennifer McCormick

Also, she is the last person elected to the job. The law was changed so the governor now appoints the secretary of education, just as he appoints nearly all members of the State Board of Education.

McCormick has been a tireless and outspoken advocate for public schools and for their students and teachers. Those schools enroll 88% of Hoosier K-12 students, yet they are often an afterthought for lawmakers and policy elites who promote charter and private schools.

I was skeptical when McCormick, a Republican, was elected in 2016. Her campaign received considerable support from advocates for school privatization, and she was part of a GOP ticket that didn’t seem to make public education a high priority. She turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In four years as superintendent of public instruction, she:

  • Pushed back against efforts by the legislature to expand Indiana’s private school voucher program and shift funding from traditional public schools to charter schools.
  • Tried to implement a more meaningful school accountability system despite state laws and policies that tie accountability to test scores and require A-to-F grades for schools.
  • Championed better pay and more professional treatment for teachers, including speaking at the November 2019 “Red for Ed” rally at the Statehouse.
  • Objected to discrimination – against LGBTQ students and families, students with disabilities and others – practiced by private schools that receive state funding through the voucher program.
  • Stood up to Betsy DeVos when the U.S. secretary of education tried to divert federal CARES Act funding intended for public schools to private schools. And won.
  • Cast off her party affiliation and endorsed Democrats in 2020 state elections.

In October, she looked ahead to the 2021 legislative session and called on lawmakers to protect funding for public schools, expand internet connectivity for schools and families, protect students from discrimination and check the growth of charter schools and the voucher program.

Like her predecessor, McCormick was often at odds with Republican legislators and State Board of Education members. Many advocates for vouchers and for charter schools didn’t like her focus on traditional public schools. Critics suggested she could have done more to prevent abuses by virtual charter schools, although McCormick blamed GOP-promoted policies for those problems.

I’ve focused on McCormick’s advocacy, but arguably her more important work was providing leadership for a state Department of Education that schools could rely on for day-to-day guidance and support. On her next-to-last day on the job, for example, she announced a partnership with Purdue University to help science educators teach about climate change.

The new Indiana secretary of education, starting today, is Katie Jenner, a former Madison, Indiana, school administrator who was senior education adviser to the governor. I’m hopeful that she will do a good job, but she won’t have the independence that McCormick enjoyed as an elected officeholder.

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