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.

Elections brought mostly good news for education

Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.

Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.

This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.

Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.

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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