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.

Continue reading

Candidates should name pick for education leader

Candidates for Indiana governor in 2020 should put their education cards on the table when they start campaigning. That means they should announce whom they will appoint as secretary of education.

At the latest, they should do this by the time of the Republican and Democratic state conventions in June 2020. That’s when candidates for the chief state education officer would have been nominated in the past. Better yet, they should announce their choice during the campaign for the May 2020 primaries.

For most of Indiana’s history, the state superintendent of public instruction has been chosen by the voters. But this year, legislators voted to make the position one that’s appointed by the governor. They also changed its name to secretary of education.

Continue reading

Bill gives governor unusual power over schools

Legislators are fast-tracking a bill to give Indiana’s governor unusual power over education. If House Bill 1005 becomes law, the governor will soon be one of only five in the United States with total control over who serves as chief state school officer and on the state board of education.

The legislation would move up the effective date for having the governor appoint the chief state school officer. Current law gives the governor the appointment in January 2025; the bill moves the date to 2021.

The measure also changes the name Indiana’s chief state school officer from superintendent of public instruction to secretary of education. It was approved last week by the House and sent on to the Senate.

Historically, Indiana’s state superintendent has been elected by popular vote. Legislators decided last year to shift to an appointed superintendent but postponed the effective date to give the current superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, a chance to serve two terms. But McCormick announced in October that she wouldn’t seek re-election, giving lawmakers an opening to make the change sooner.

Continue reading