Governor unclear on school choice

Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”

Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.

It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.

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Jenner appointment no surprise

Gov. Eric Holcomb choosing his chief education adviser to be Indiana’s first secretary of education was about as surprising as night following day. The whole point of making this an appointed position, after all, was so the governor and secretary would be on the same page regarding education. Who better to hold the job than someone who has worked closely with Holcomb on K-12 policy?

That said, Katie Jenner looks to be a reasonable choice. She was a teacher, albeit briefly. She was an assistant principal and assistant superintendent at Madison Consolidated Schools. She worked at Ivy Tech Community College until Holcomb made her his senior education adviser. She has master’s and doctoral degrees in education, along with an MBA.

Katie Jenner (Office of the Governor)

She will take over the duties now carried out by Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s last elected superintendent of public instruction. Legislators voted to change the name of the position to secretary of education and to make it appointed, not elected.

Jenner has mostly kept a low profile in state policy and politics, and it seems she hasn’t made any real enemies or clashed publicly with other officials. From what little I’ve heard, she is competent, well liked and committed to education. Advocacy groups from across the spectrum say they are eager to work with her (not that they have a choice). I also wish her well and hope she does a great job.

Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, reiterated the group’s support for having the governor appoint the chief education officer.

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State leaders kick the can

Faced with questions about state funding for schools that are operating online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Eric Holcomb came up with an answer: Kick the can down the road.

Gov. Eric Holcomb headsho

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Holcomb, together with leaders of the Indiana House and Senate, proposed delaying the “count day” for recording school corporations’ official fall enrollment from September until at least December. That means schools will continue to receive complete state funding through the fall semester.

But it doesn’t address what happens beyond that. Neither does it ensure that schools will get their get the funding they expected for the 2020-21 school year, without having it reduced because some students attend virtually. That will be up to the legislature.

“The key in this discussion is a one-time adjustment to the virtual funding portion of the school formula. That is the solution to the issue,” Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, told me by email.

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Who pushed appointed-superintendent law?

Indiana Republicans act as if they decided to draft House Bill 1005 after Jennifer McCormick announced she wouldn’t seek re-election. But there’s plenty to suggest McCormick would have been pushed out even if she hadn’t agreed to step aside.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

Unfortunately, evidence about who lobbied for the change, and why, is likely to remain secret.

Under HB 1005, Indiana’s governor will appoint the chief state school officer starting in 2021. The bill was approved by largely party-line votes – 70-29 in the House and 29-19 in the Senate. It just needs Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature to become law, and that should come any day.

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Are Hoosier teachers underpaid?

Are Indiana teachers underpaid compared to their peers in others states? It’s a reasonable question to ask as state officials debate ways to find more money for teacher salaries.

A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests they are underpaid. After adjusting for cost of living, Indiana teacher salaries rank 32nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, it says.

The average “real” salary for a Hoosier teacher in 2017 was $56,347 after adjusting for the state’s low cost of living. Adjusted average salaries ranged from $75,000 in Alaska to $46,230 in Oklahoma.

Significantly, Indiana’s adjusted average salary was well below that for teachers in surrounding states. Gov. Eric Holcomb has suggested Indiana needs to raise educator pay because it’s at risk of losing teachers to nearby states with higher salaries.

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Teacher pay proposal a surprise

Gov. Eric Holcomb dropped a surprise Tuesday in his State of the State address, and it was a good one. He called for tapping Indiana’s budget surplus to add $70 million to funding for K-12 schools each of the next two years.

That’s a little less than a 1 percent increase, but it’s something. And it’s on top of a 2-percent-per-year school funding hike in Holcomb’s budget proposal.

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb

It was a surprise because the Republicans who control both the House and Senate had signaled that Indiana’s $1.8 billion surplus was off the table in this budget-writing session. If the GOP governor says it’s not off the table, then it’s not.

The $70 million per year would help pay teacher pension costs that schools currently bear. That would free money for schools to use for other purposes. Holcomb said they should use it all to increase pay for teachers.

The funding will offset some of what school districts and charter schools pay into the Teacher Retirement Fund for teachers who joined the fund after 1996, a spokesperson for the Indiana Public Retirement System told me. Teachers who joined prior to 1996 are in a pay-as-you-go system that’s funded by the state.

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School board was right to reject metal detectors

The Monroe County Community School Corp. board in Bloomington, Indiana, deserves a ton of credit for its brave and correct decision to reject an offer of free metal detectors from the state.

In the midst of a panic over school shootings, including the shooting of a teacher and student last spring at a Noblesville middle school, nearly every school district in Indiana jumped at Gov. Eric Holcomb’s offer of free metal detectors. The MCCSC board said no, and for good reasons.

“I think that just the fact that we have these, whether or not we ever use them, diminishes the good feelings our parents and our kids have in our schools,” board member Jeannine Butler said.

That’s exactly right. Parents and students want schools to be safe, but they also want them to be warm, welcoming places, not “hardened” targets that resemble prisons or detention centers. What message does it send if a school acts as if everyone who enters the door is a potential killer?

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