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.

Indiana schools chief backing Democrats

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s Republican superintendent of public instruction, has been making waves by endorsing Democratic candidates for state office. What’s up with that?

First, McCormick can make a credible case that she didn’t desert the party, the party deserted her. There was a time when Indiana Republicans supported public schools; at least, they supported their local public schools. The shift came in 2011, when Gov. Mitch Daniels got the GOP-controlled legislature to adopt school vouchers and expand charter schools. Today, many Hoosier Republicans have come very close to embracing the late economist Milton Friedman’s vision of a “universal” voucher program of unrestricted state support for private schools.

But McCormick, former superintendent of Indiana’s Yorktown school district, has been an outspoken advocate for public schools. Every time she spoke out for public school districts, you could see Republicans edging further away. When she announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek re-election, she implied that she was being elbowed aside. Legislators promptly changed the law so Indiana’s governor will appoint the state’s next chief education officer, starting in 2021.

As McCormick advocated for public schools, she found common ground with Democrats. She joined state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, on a statewide listening tour as he explored seeking the nomination for governor. Now she has endorsed the Democratic candidates for governor, Woody Myers, and attorney general, Jonathan Weinzapfel, as well as three Democratic candidates for the legislature.

Republicans responded by calling her the worst name they could think of: Democrat. “It’s not surprising that a Democrat is endorsing a Democrat,” state GOP spokesman Jake Oakman said. “Jennifer has been angling for a position in a possible future Democrat administration for months now.” (Note the patronizing tone. She is not Dr. McCormick or Superintendent McCormick but “Jennifer.”).

I guess it is conceivable that McCormick could join a Democratic administration, maybe as U.S. secretary of education in a Biden administration.

A position in a Woody Myers administration seems unlikely. Myers, a former Indiana and New York City health commissioner, has solid qualifications. But he has little name recognition and less money. Holcomb is widely considered to be a popular governor, and his campaign has over $8 million compared to $678,000 for Myers.

Some pundits suggest that Trump-enamored Republicans, outraged by Holcomb’s mask mandate, could defect to Libertarian Donald Rainwater, putting the race in play. But that seems like a long shot.

McCormick, meanwhile, has told reporters she still considers herself a Republican. She told the Indy Star that some Republicans had asked for her support, “but at this point, I’ve chosen to endorse those candidates who I feel will support public education and not be owned by their donors.”

That’s a telling comment. When McCormick won her 2016 election over one-term Democrat Glenda Ritz, she had generous financial backing from voucher and charter school advocates – most prominently from a group associated with Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. secretary of education.

It’s easy to imagine those groups tried to put the screws to McCormick to support their favored policies, and that they couldn’t have been happy when she didn’t. When McCormick talks about donors wanting to “own” elected officials, she probably knows whereof she speaks.

Court affirms McCormick’s position on private school funding

Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Jennifer McCormick was on solid legal ground when she rejected federal guidance on distributing CARES Act funding to private schools. Three federal courts have now made that clear.

Most recently, in a decision that applies nationwide, a judge ruled that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was wrong when she and the U.S. Department of Education tried to divert more funding to private schools than Congress intended.

“In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich. “It declared that relief funding shall be provided to private schools ‘in the same manner as provided’ (in federal school funding law). Contrary to the Department’s interim final rule, that cannot mean the opposite of what it says.”

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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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Indiana schools chief stands up to DeVos

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick is taking bold action by rejecting guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and distributing emergency aid for schools the way Congress intended.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

It’s remarkable that, thanks to McCormick, Indiana appears to be the first state to openly push back against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and refuse to follow guidance that it deems to be contrary to the law.

At issue is funding from the CARES Act, which provides $13.2 billion to help schools respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use the money to improve technology, protect student health and plan for the next school year.

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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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McCormick: It’s time to change school grading system

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick is tapping into the alarm over results of Indiana’s new ILEARN standardized assessment to call for changes in how the state evaluates schools.

She said the test scores “once again show us the importance of developing a modernized, state-legislated accountability system that is fair, accurate and transparent.”

Flores, McCormick and Paino

Jennifer McCormick, center, with Department of Education assessment director Charity Flores and accountability director Maggie Paino.

State officials will release 2019 ILEARN results Wednesday at a meeting of the State Board of Education. It’s expected that the percentage of students who scored at the proficient level on the assessment is considerably lower than the number who passed the former ISTEP exam in 2018.

In a statement and at a Statehouse news conference, McCormick said she will call on the legislature to: Continue reading

Melton and McCormick bring listening tour to Bloomington

Sen. Eddie Melton said it made obvious sense to invite Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick to join him on a statewide listening tour, even if they do represent different political parties.

Sen. Eddie Melton, at left, and Jennifer McCormick

Sen. Eddie Melton and Jennifer McCormick

“It should not be about Republican or Democrat at the end of the day when we talk about our children,” he said Thursday during a stop in Bloomington.

Indeed, 12 years ago, no one would have given a second thought to officials from opposite sides of the aisle sharing a stage to talk about schools. But times have changed, and education has become a highly partisan topic. Also, Melton may seek the Democratic nomination for governor. And McCormick is increasingly on the outs with her fellow Republican office-holders.

With 16 stops in July and August, the tour is generating some buzz, politically and policy-wise.

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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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McCormick unbound

I don’t think Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has ever been shy about saying what she thinks, but she seems to have become even more outspoken since announcing in October that she won’t seek re-election when her term expires in January 2021.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

She called out legislators on several issues Wednesday in a Bloomington discussion sponsored by the Indiana Coalition of Public Education-Monroe County and the Monroe County Community School Corp.

School funding: McCormick said the school funding increase in the budget that the Indiana House has approved – just over 2 percent each of the next two years – isn’t enough. Low pay and working conditions are creating a severe teacher shortage, she said, and more money is needed. Thirty-five percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

Funding for charter schools: She took issue with a budget provision that doubles grants to charter schools for transportation, buildings and technology to $1,000 per student – at a cost to the state of $77 million over two years. “If we’ve got $77 million,” she said, “let’s put it in the pot for everybody.”

Indiana’s private-school voucher program: McCormick pointed out that the program was sold in 2011 as a way to help poor and minority students stuck in low-performing schools, but it has evolved into something quite different. Fifty-eight percent of voucher students never attended a public school. “Suburban whites are the ones taking advantage of it most,” she said. Continue reading