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.

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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Lost enrollment costs schools

Indiana school districts stand to lose over $100 million in state funding this year because of reduced enrollment attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fall 2020 enrollment in traditional public schools declined by 17,300 students, according to data released last week by the Indiana Department of Education. Each of those students translates to over $6,200 in lost funding from the state.

It’s not yet clear what happened or where the students went. Some families may have opted to homeschool their children rather than send them to school during the pandemic. Some may have switched to private or charter schools.

A significant factor could be families with young children choosing to delay or skip kindergarten. Indiana does not require kindergarten attendance, and children are not required to start school until the academic year when they turn 7.

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Mixed picture for CARES Act school funding

The bad news about CARES Act funding for schools is that there’s not nearly enough of it. For some school districts, there’s very little. More federal aid may be coming, but we don’t know when or how much.

The good news: In Indiana, at least, public school districts won’t need to worry about Betsy DeVos diverting their anticipated funding to private schools.

DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, may still succeed in her scheme to use the act to boost funding for even the wealthiest private schools. But the Indiana Department of Education will make up any funds that are lost to public schools.

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Voucher growth levels off

The number of students who received private school vouchers in Indiana leveled off last year, marking a possible end to voucher program’s steady growth.

Students enrolled in the program at the start of the 2019-20 school year declined slightly from the previous year. But the state added a second signup period, and some students enrolled late, resulting in a slight increase.

Cover page of voucher reportAccording an Indiana Department of Education report, 36,707 students received vouchers last year. That’s a little over 3% of the state’s K-12 students.

Indiana awarded $172.8 million in vouchers in 2019-20, up from $161.4 million the previous year. Over the program’s nine-year history, state spending for private school vouchers has now topped $1 billion.

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Indiana’s federal school ratings, the good and bad

The Indiana Department of Education released federal accountability ratings for schools recently, and there’s both good news and bad news when it comes to looking to these ratings to evaluate schools.

The good news: Unlike the more familiar state accountability system, the federal system doesn’t rely on overly simplistic A-to-F grades. Instead, schools receive ratings of Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Approaches Expectations or Does Not Meet Expectations. Those are more meaningful designations than letter grades. They’re more like the evaluations you’re likely to see on student report cards, at least in the early grades.

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Report shows scope of school choice

CLARIFICATION: The transfer report counts 5,407 students who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools District and who attend IPS “innovation network schools” as having transferred out of the district to charter schools. (Innovation network schools are part of IPS but operate much like charter schools and have their own school boards). If those students were counted as attending IPS schools, the proportion of state-funded students in the district who attend IPS schools would be 66.5%

Nearly 14% of state-funded K-12 students in Indiana attend schools other than public schools in their local school district, according to a report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.

Some attend charter schools. Some attend private schools with help from state-funded tuition vouchers. But many transfer to public schools outside the district where they live, an option that has become increasingly common in the past decade.

Some districts are hurt especially hard by school choice. In Gary Community Schools, only 36.4% of students who live in the district attend local public schools. In the Indianapolis Public Schools district, the figure is barely half.

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The stakes are the problem

Indiana’s ILEARN scores have been made public, and the freakout is underway. I guess we should be grateful. A decade ago, business leaders and newspaper editorial writers might have pointed to the scores as evidence that schools were broken. Now the consensus seems to be that the test is broken.

Here’s another possibility. Maybe the problem isn’t with the test. Maybe the problem is what we do with it. Maybe it’s the high stakes, not the testing, that we should reject.

Results for the new ILEARN assessment were released today during a meeting of the State Board of Education. As expected, the rate at which students were found to be proficient was considerably lower than the passing rate on ISTEP, Indiana’s previous test.

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DOE: New assessment is ‘not ISTEP 2.0’

Indiana students will start taking new ILEARN assessments Monday. Is ILEARN really something new, not just ISTEP with a different name and more bells and whistles? State officials insist it is.

“One of our key messages is literally that: This is not designed to be ISTEP 2.0,” said Charity Flores, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education.

The biggest difference, Flores said, is that ILEARN math and English/language arts assessments for grades 3-8 will be computer-adaptive. Students will take the tests online, and algorithms will guide the questions they see. The questions will change in difficulty depending on how the previous question was answered. The goal is a more precise, focused evaluation of students’ skills.

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Voucher program serves the top 20 percent

Over 1,300 households that participate in Indiana’s school voucher program have incomes over $100,000, according to the 2018-19 voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

That puts them in the top 20 percent of Hoosier households by income. So much for the argument that the voucher program, created in 2011, exists to help poor children “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Like previous state reports on the voucher program, the current report paints a picture of a program that primarily promotes religious education and serves tens of thousands of families that could afford private school tuition without help from the taxpayers.

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