School choice group bankrolled campaign

I still hope Jennifer McCormick turns out to be a good superintendent of public instruction, one who looks out for students, teachers and public schools. But my optimism takes a hit when I look at her campaign finance reports for this year’s election.

McCormick got a big surge of late cash — $100,000 in October – from Hoosiers for Quality Education, the pro-voucher and anti-union organization started by Carmel businessman Fred Klipsch. In 2016, the group gave the Republican candidate $130,000, more than one-third of all she raised.

Hoosiers for Quality Education, despite its name, isn’t a grass-roots organization of Indiana folks advocating for better schools. Its funding comes from a handful of big donors, many of them out of state. They include Red Apple Development, a sister company of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, and K-12 Management, a for-profit that runs online charter schools.

Over the years, much of the group’s money has come from the American Federation for Children, a group headed by the Michigan Republican activist Betsy DeVos, reportedly a leading contender to be named secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump.

The American Federation for Children PAC restocked its coffers this year with over a half million dollars from DeVos and her husband Dick, an Amway heir, and $300,000 from Alice and Jim Walton, two of the siblings who own over half of Walmart. It got $100,000 from Tennessee GOP rainmaker James Haslam. Continue reading

Superintendent election part of GOP wave

Jennifer McCormick won big over incumbent Glenda Ritz in Tuesday’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. How did she do it? The explanation is simple:

McCormick ran as a Republican.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

And running as a Republican was about all a candidate needed to do in this year of a massive GOP sweep in Indiana. Anyone with an R beside her or his name was likely to win.

That’s not to suggest McCormick wasn’t a good candidate. She ran a respectful, issue-focused campaign, and she may prove to be an excellent superintendent. She is an experienced educator. She has promised to keep politics out of the office, probably an impossible pledge to keep but a worthy objective.

But her victory wasn’t a mandate for policies or pledges. It was a function of Indiana turning bright red in the Year of Trump. Ritz, the darling of teachers’ unions and public-school advocates, didn’t have a chance. Neither did any other Democrat.

“I think it was a wave election for Trump that swept in the Republicans at all levels,” said Paul Helmke, a professor of practice at Indiana University and former mayor of Fort Wayne. “Even when Glenda Ritz was the incumbent and presumably still had the same support from teachers that she had four years ago, when there’s a big wave, there’s no way you survive in those situations.”

McCormick got 53.4 percent of the vote to Ritz’s 46.6 percent, according to unofficial figures. In the governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb beat Democrat John Gregg by about the same margin – even though Gregg, a former House speaker, is smart, funny, Hoosier to the core and ran a strong campaign.

Trump got 57 percent of the Hoosier vote to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. In the only no-name state race, Republican Curtis Hill got 62.3 percent of the votes for attorney general. In Southern Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, Trey Hollingsworth, arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have chosen, smashed Shelli Yoder, who was the best candidate Democrats will ever find for the contest.

You could argue that Ritz and Gregg beat the spread.

The results were surprising, though. Recent polls showed Gregg and Ritz leading. GOP insiders looked to have written off the superintendent’s race; they didn’t try to keep up with Ritz in campaign fund-raising. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Education Committee chair Robert Behning seemed almost caught off guard when they discussed the outcome with WFYI’s Eric Weddle.

But mandate or not, congratulations to McCormick, and good luck. Let’s hope she advocates for public schools, rejects the fool’s gold of school choice and stands up to anti-public education legislators. May she hire strong professional staff, not the partisans who surrounded Tony Bennett, Ritz’s predecessor.

Before Bennett came along, Republican Suellen Reed who served four terms as a rigorously nonpartisan Indiana superintendent from 1993-2009. That’s a model McCormick would do well to emulate.

Candidate claims own path, but will it matter?

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, seemed to walk back her support of school vouchers at a candidate debate this week. She also came out forcefully for better pay and more autonomy for teachers.

But that may be too little, too late to win her much support from educators, often a key constituency for anyone who wants to be elected the state’s chief school officer.

McCormick is challenging Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who won the loyalty of many teachers by slaying the education-reform dragon Tony Bennett in the 2012 election and later by standing up to Gov. Mike Pence and his appointed State Board of Education.

At the debate, which took place in Fort Wayne and can be watched on the State Impact Indiana website, McCormick attacked Ritz for sloppy management of the Indiana Department of Education and poor communication with school districts. Ritz defended her record and pointed to her Vision 2020 plan for universal pre-K, less testing and improved high school graduation rates.

Ritz’s supporters have cast McCormick as “Tony Bennett 2.0,” a kinder, gentler version of the former superintendent, whom teachers loved to hate. McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, insists she’s just a professional educator who decided to run out of frustration.

“It is time we put students before politics, which has not happened for the last eight years,” she said.

That’s a smart statement, because going back eight years takes in Bennett’s tenure as well as Ritz’s. But the idea that you can remove politics from an elected office in this era of Continue reading

Will voucher support hurt superintendent candidate?

Jennifer McCormick, the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction, says she rejects politics and wants to provide effective management for the Indiana Department of Education. But the message isn’t convincing when her campaign supporters include some very political people.

Or when McCormick joins them in embracing Indiana’s controversial school voucher program.

And let’s face it: Making and administering state education policy is a political process. It’s probably always been that way, but it became much more so when Republican Tony Bennett was elected to the office in 2008 and began using politics as a club to reshape education.

McCormick, the school superintendent in Yorktown, Ind., since 2010, is challenging Glenda Ritz, the Democrat who upset Bennett in the 2012 election. She hasn’t yet provided a lot of specifics about policy, but she supports Indiana’s voucher program, which provides state funding to send children to private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.

“I’ve been a huge proponent of parents being allowed that choice,” she told Chalkbeat Indiana.

That should be a deal-breaker for many people who support public education. Leaving aside the matter of taxpayer funding of faith-based schools, vouchers cost the state up to $53.2 million last year, according to the Indiana Department of Education. That’s money that could have gone to public schools.

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Testing expert: ‘Be careful what you wish for’ in replacing ISTEP

It’s one thing for Indiana officials to say they’re getting rid of the hated ISTEP exam. It’s quite another to figure out what to do next. That’s the dilemma that’s playing out as a 23-member state panel tries to craft recommendations on the future of standardized testing.

“The task is a significant one,” said Ed Roeber, a Michigan testing expert and a member of the technical advisory committee that the State Board of Education appointed to advise the ISTEP replacement panel.

Ed Roeber

Ed Roeber

But the plain truth is, Indiana is likely to have an end-of-year state test for accountability well beyond July 2017, when the law says ISTEP is supposed to expire. The test may have a new name and it may be created by a new vendor. But annual testing isn’t going away.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, Roeber said in a telephone interview – as long as the test is properly designed and implemented, and it is part of a balanced system of assessment.

“I personally didn’t think ISTEP needed to be dropped,” he said. “I thought it could be done a whole lot better.”

The task before the ISTEP replacement panel, meanwhile, is complicated by politics. Lawmakers took credit this year for repealing ISTEP, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure to great fanfare. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has long called for moving away from high-stakes standardized tests.

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Ritz hits the mark with pre-K proposal

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz hit the nail on the head with her call for expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten programs to all Indiana school districts.

Part of the Vision 2020 initiative that Ritz unveiled this week, the universal pre-K proposal makes sense educationally and politically. And it puts pressure on Republican Gov. Mike Pence to come up with a more ambitious plan than anything he has supported to date.

Ritz, a Democrat, should also get credit for putting “equity in student access to resources and support” at the top of her Vision 2020 priorities list. It’s not yet clear exactly what that encompasses, but Ritz suggested it will include closing the “digital divide” between rich and poor schools, ending racial disparities in school discipline and providing fair funding for schools. All are all worthy goals.

The superintendent’s pre-kindergarten initiative, framed as a legislative agenda approaching next year’s budget session of the Indiana General Assembly, pledges to “make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation in the state of Indiana by 2020.”

There’s consensus among Indiana’s education and business leaders that access to strong pre-kindergarten programs is important. There’s also widespread support for the idea from academic experts – check out the website of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who is on an all-out crusade to persuade policymakers of the economic and social benefits of high-quality pre-K.

But Indiana lags far behind the rest of the country. Continue reading

Less than meets the eye to ISTEP results

There’s not much to say about Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP scores, released this week, except that they went down. Way down.

In the spring of 2014, 74.7 percent of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 were able to pass both the math and English/language arts sections of the test. In the spring of 2015, that fell to 53.5 percent.

Of course, it was a different test, tied to a different set of standards, and with very different “cut scores” for passing set by the Indiana State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and other officials warned the passing rates would drop dramatically, and they were right.

And the scores fell pretty much across the board. Every one of Indiana’s 289 public school corporations saw its overall passing rate decline by 10 percentage points or more.

Yes, some dropped more than others. It’s tempting to focus on which districts saw their passing rates drop a lot and which dropped a little and to think that would tell us something about school performance. But it may not.

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