McCormick seeks help on graduation rate

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has appealed to members of the Indiana congressional delegation for help in addressing a change in how the state is required to calculate high-school graduation rates.

In a letter this week to Indiana’s two senators and nine House members, McCormick describes problems that could result from the change and invites the delegation to help resolve a disagreement between state and federal education agencies.

Jennifer McCormick official head shot

Jennifer McCormick

Under guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, Indiana will no longer be able to include students who earn the general diploma in calculations of the official graduation rate for high schools. About 12 percent of Indiana graduates received the general diploma in recent years.

Had the requirement been in place in 2016, McCormick explains, it would have reduced Indiana’s graduation rate from 89.1 percent to 76.5 percent, a percentage that “does not reflect well upon our state and could negatively impact our economy.”

“This drastic drop in graduation rate due to a simple, federal definition change will cause confusion, reflect poorly upon all of our communities and our state, and could result in decreased emphasis placed upon those students who may not achieve at least a Core 40 Diploma,” McCormick writes. Continue reading

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McCormick: “irresponsible” not to review voucher program

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, is showing herself to be a principled advocate for public schools, even if it means defying Republican orthodoxy on private school vouchers.

After six years of experience with a fast-growing and largely unregulated voucher system, she told National Public Radio reporters, it’s time for Indiana to take a serious look at the program.

“You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” said McCormick, a Republican who took office in January.

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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

Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

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Superintendent-elect starts strong with transition team

Against the crazy national political news, here’s an encouraging development in Indiana: Jennifer McCormick, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, has picked a solid group of education professionals to help with her transition to office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

The team includes school administrators, policy experts, leaders of education organizations and others who are familiar with education issues in the state. Notably absent are the conservative ideologues and school-choice advocates who have been prominent in state school politics.

“The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best departments of education in the nation,” McCormick said in a news release.

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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.