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.

Elections brought mostly good news for education

Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.

Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.

This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.

Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.

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Group that DeVos led spending big on elections

The organization formerly led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is spending at least $325,000 this year to keep the Indiana General Assembly in Republican control.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, doesn’t give directly to candidates or parties but funnels its largesse through state partners. In Indiana, that’s Hoosiers for Quality Education, which has led the push for private-school vouchers and charter-school expansion.

Indiana Statehouse

The federation’s political action fund gave Hoosiers for Quality Education $325,000 in three big contributions in 2018, according to campaign finance reports filed this month. That’s about half the money the Indiana-based group received this year.

In turn, Hoosiers for Quality Education has handed out $575,000 this year, nearly all of it to the campaigns of Republican candidates for the Indiana House and Senate. It’s sitting on a cash balance of $170,000 that can be parceled out between now and Election Day if needed.

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Kentucky educators and supporters try to reclaim state

The nation’s eyes were on Kentucky in the spring when Bluegrass State teachers walked off the job because of low pay and threats to their pensions. We should all be watching again on Nov. 6, when teachers and their supporters try to take the state back from ALEC-aligned Republicans.

Over 50 active and retired teachers are seeking seats in the Kentucky House and Senate, part of what veteran Courier-Journal political reporter Tom Loftus calls “an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall.”

It’s happening across the country. HuffPost, citing National Education Association figures, reports over 500 educators are running for state legislative seats. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider highlight the phenomenon in episode 52 of their “Have You Heard” podcast.

Empty House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

But nowhere are teachers running with more enthusiasm, or is more at stake, than in Kentucky, as members of Save Our Schools Kentucky made clear last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis. Four of the activists led a panel titled “How Grassroots Can Stop the Kochs in Your State,” arguing that citizen activism can check big-spending outsiders like the Koch brothers.

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Indiana election a model for pro-public school candidates

There’s a lot of buzz this year about the idea that education could be a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 election. Candidates who are thinking about highlighting their support for public schools could look for inspiration to the 2012 Indiana election for superintendent of public instruction.

Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, won with a campaign that focused on her support for teachers and her opposition to vouchers and test-based school and educator accountability. In the solidly red state of Indiana, Ritz upset the Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, a hero of the national “education reform” crowd. Her grassroots campaign succeeded even though she was outspent more than 5-to-1.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz

Yes, Ritz was running to be Indiana’s chief school official, so it made sense that the race focused on education. But education should also be front-and-center in elections for governor and state legislature, offices that makes the laws governing how schools operate.

Ritz won by mobilizing teachers and their friends and supporters. Scott Elliott, then a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, analyzed the results and concluded she won via “a teacher-led movement, online and word-of-mouth, born of frustration with Bennett, his style and his policies.” If that kind of movement can elect a state superintendent, it could elect governors and legislators too.

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Good news from Raleigh

The big education-related story in this month’s elections came from Ohio, where voters repealed a law that limited collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees, including teachers.

But for this blog, the most significant election news was Kevin Hill’s victory in a run-off election for a school board seat in in Wake County, N.C. The outcome gave Democrats a sweep of this year’s board races and a 5-4 edge on the school board in Raleigh.

And it ousted the Republican majority that had dismantled Wake County’s brave and innovative socio-economic diversity policy.

It’s not yet clear whether the new board majority will bring back the old policy, which assigned students to schools in a way that avoided concentrating large numbers of poor children in the same buildings. Wake County school administrators are moving ahead with a neighborhood and “choice-based” student assignment plan adopted by the former Republican majority. Democrats say they’ll review the plan.

However that plays out, this is an outcome worth noting.

In an era when education “reform” is based on the idea that competition must drive improvement – that parents are out to get the best possible education for their own kids, whether through charter schools, magnet schools or vouchers, and never mind everyone else – the Wake County results can be interpreted as endorsing education as a community responsibility.

Fifty-seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. But as UCLA’s Gary Orfield and his Civil Rights Project colleagues have shown, schools have become more segregated in the past generation, by race and especially by social class.

It may be that poverty will always be with us. But socio-economic segregation of schools is a result of choices – decisions by people of means to abandon the cities and public education, sure, but also political decisions about student-assignment plans and the boundaries of school districts and attendance areas. (Example: Bloomington, Ind., where one elementary school has 90 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, while an elementary school with an adjacent attendance area has fewer than 20 percent of its students qualifying for lunch subsidies).

The voters of Raleigh have shown it’s possible to choose a different path.

Meanwhile, in Denver

Emily Sirota lost her race for a seat on the Denver school board – badly. She had attracted national media attention for her challenge to a “pro-reform” candidate backed by Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children.