Legislation gives governor unusual power over education

Making the case that Indiana’s governor should appoint the superintendent of public instruction, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the “vast majority” of states have moved away from electing state education officials. That’s not entirely accurate.

It’s true that Indiana is one of just a dozen states that let the voters choose their chief state school officer, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. But seven states elect their state education boards, which typically appoint the state superintendent.

In fact, House Bill 1005 – approved by the legislature and sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law – would make Indiana one of only five states in which the governor has complete control of appointments of the state superintendent and members of the State Board of Education.

That’s a lot of authority to put in the hands of one person. And it’s a bit unusual in Indiana, where we insist on electing public officials all the way down to the township level. Continue reading

Appointed superintendent push is about politics

Indiana Republicans are determined to change state law so the governor can appoint the superintendent of public instruction. OK, but stop pretending this is about principle.

There’s some validity to the idea that the governor and superintendent should be on the same page regarding education policy. Governors from both parties, including current Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, have made that argument.

But advocates like House Speaker Brian Bosma are blowing smoke when they claim they just want to put the superintendent position and the Indiana Department of Education above politics. It could have the opposite effect.

You could say that Indiana went down this road before. In 2008, the popular and scrupulously nonpartisan superintendent Suellen Reed had served four terms and could have run again. But Gov. Mitch Daniels recruited a southern Indiana school administrator named Tony Bennett to replace her on the Republican ticket.

Bennett won and proceeded to implement an agenda of promoting charter schools and vouchers and weakening teachers’ unions. 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.

Continue reading

Educator or politician?

Jennifer McCormick, seeking the Republican nomination for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, says she wants to “take the politics out” of the office. Good luck with that. Especially when, as Chalkbeat Indiana reported, she announced her candidacy surrounded by representatives of Stand for Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, some of the most political outfits in the state.

Candidates for Indiana superintendent run as Democrats or Republicans – and they run as part of a slate of candidates for state office, including governor – so the race will likely be political in every sense.

But let’s assume McCormick, the Yorktown Community Schools superintendent who is challenging Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz, is being honest. Here is some unsolicited advice:

  • Keep your distance from ideologues, especially those of the school-choice-and-free-educational-market variety who have an outsized influence on state Republican politics. If the Walton family and their ilk come offering big campaign donations, run the other way. Fast.
  • Decide and make clear that, as superintendent, you will be a forceful advocate for the traditional public schools that nine of 10 Indiana students attend. Let your public school flag fly. Don’t let the charter-and-voucher tail wag the policy dog.
  • Be careful about criticizing Ritz for being “political.” To her supporters, it’s crystal clear that Gov. Mike Pence, Republican legislators and State Board of Education members are the ones who brought the politics with their relentless attacks on the Democratic superintendent.
  • Better yet, reach out to Ritz’s supporters, including the teachers’ unions. They won’t back you, but if you win, you should want to work with them. Make the election about effectiveness and transparency, and make it clear you’re not just a kinder, gentler Tony Bennett.

Continue reading

Superintendent debates, urban education forum

The Indiana superintendent of public instruction campaign is finally getting some attention, less than two weeks before the election. A debate will take place tonight (Oct. 26) between Republican incumbent Tony Bennett and Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz. It’s in Fort Wayne and runs from 7-8 p.m., sponsored by Northeast Indiana Public Radio and the Andy Downs Center on Indiana Politics at IPFW.

This event has a standard election debate format: two rounds of questions, posed alternately to each candidate, followed by closing statements. There will be no studio audience, but Northeast Indiana Public Radio will broadcast the debate, and folks can listen online. Kyle Stokes of NPR State Impact Indiana will moderate. As of Thursday, he was taking suggestions for questions.

Bennett and Ritz appeared Wednesday night in a forum at Wabash College. They didn’t debate, though. Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully asked questions, first to Bennett, then to Ritz. You can watch on Wabash’s Youtube channel. Continue reading