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.

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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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.

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Governor wants to appoint state superintendent

Gov. Eric Holcomb says he wants Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction to be appointed by the governor, not elected by the voters. It’s not the worst education proposal we’re likely to hear this legislative session. But it’s up to Holcomb to make a case for the change.

His fellow Republicans raised this idea in 2012, after Democratic Glenda Ritz upset Republican incumbent Tony Bennett in the superintendent election. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce made appointing the schools chief part of its 2014 legislative agenda. But changing the law when there was a Republican governor and a Democratic superintendent would have been a slap in the face to the voters who favored Ritz. Republicans rightly recognized that.

In November 2016, voters chose Holcomb as governor and Republican Jennifer McCormick, over Ritz, as state superintendent. According to the Indianapolis Star, House Speaker Brian Bosma will sponsor legislation that will let the governor appoint the superintendent in 2021, after McCormick’s term ends.

Indiana is one of 13 states that elect their chief state school officers, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In 15 states, governors appoint the schools chief. In 22, the position is appointed by the state board.

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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

Ritz over Bennett: the grass roots prevail

Glenda Ritz’s upset of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett sent shock waves across the country. Bennett, after all, is a national figure in education circles – the head of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, able to bring in big money from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago hedge-fund managers and a Wal-Mart heiress. He raised 10 times as much campaign cash as Ritz.

What happened? In a word, teachers. In fact, if you talk to teachers, retired teachers or people who hang out with teachers, you may hear they aren’t the least bit surprised that Bennett lost.

His policies, and the way he advocated for them, angered and threatened Indiana educators. There are more than 68,000 public elementary and second teachers in Indiana. They have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, cousins and friends. And they vote. Many parents talk to their children’s teachers and know whether and why they’re unhappy. Quite a few school administrators and school board members didn’t like what they perceived as Bennett’s heavy-handed ways.

“It really did boil down to a grass-roots effort by the teachers, the teachers’ union and the administrators,” said Terry Spradlin, director of education policy with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Ritz also may have caught a break from the fact that Gov. Mitch Daniels sidelined himself from politics after being named president of Purdue University. He and Bennett worked hand-in-hand on education, and a little strategic campaigning by the governor could have made a difference.

Bennett, a Republican, said this about the election to State Impact Indiana: “I don’t think it’s a message on reform. I believe it was a referendum on Tony Bennett.”

There’s probably some truth to that. Continue reading

Indiana superintendent campaign finance: The rich vs. the many

Tony Bennett’s campaign donors are hedge-fund managers, charter-school developers, Big Tobacco and wealthy supporters of “education reform” and the Republican Party. Glenda Ritz’s are teachers and public-education advocates – hundreds of them – and the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Needless to say, fund-raising for the Indiana superintendent of public instruction race isn’t close. Ritz’s supporters give between $25 and $100 each. Bennett’s financial backers aren’t the 47 percent, or even the 99 percent. They give thousands of dollars apiece, sometimes tens of thousands.

Third-quarter campaign finance reports filed last week show Bennett had more than $1 million in his campaign account as of Oct. 1, which explains why we’re seeing him in TV ads, a first for a state superintendent candidate. Ritz had $42,000.

True, the Indiana State Teachers replenished Ritz’s fund with $65,000 this month. The teachers’ union has given Ritz $173,000, most of what she has raised. But that’s less than Bennett got in one check — $200,000 – from Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart heiress and supporter of school-choice and voucher plans.

Bennett’s other third-quarter contributors include: multi-billionaire home-builder Eli Broad ($50,000); Wisconsin businessman and voucher proponent Robert Kern ($50,000); Hoosiers for Economic Growth, whose money comes from New York and Philadelphia hedge-fund managers ($50,800); and Chicago hedge-fund manager Anne Griffin ($25,000).

He also got $10,000 from Red Apple Development, the real estate partner of Charter Schools USA, which Bennett’s Indiana Department of Education selected to take over three under-performing public schools in Indianapolis. He got $1,000 from the Reynolds American PAC – enough tobacco money to cancel out 20 typical Ritz donors. Continue reading

Indiana schools chief Bennett has big head start in election fund-raising

With the 2012 election still nine months away, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is already sitting on a re-election treasury of $400,000, considerably more than the $307,000 he spent to win the office four years ago.

That means whoever the Indiana Democratic Party selects to run will face an uphill fight when it comes to cash – and the party won’t pick its candidate until June.

It’s no surprise that Bennett has raised a lot of money. He has gained a national reputation in education reform circles, and he’s been traveling the country, spending time with political heavy hitters. His is wired in with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Chiefs for Change organization.

Bennett’s major campaign funding sources include:

— Wealthy Indiana business people with a history of giving to Republicans: $50,000 from Merrillville hotel developer Dean White, $22,500 from Mike Weaver of Weaver Popcorn, $20,000 from William Oesterle of Angie’s List and $10,000 from Carmel investment manager Robert Goad.

— Out-of-state businesses that contract with the Indiana Department of Education, or might like to: $5,000 from K-12 Inc., operator of online charter schools; $2,500 from McGraw-Hill, Indiana’s testing contractor; $2,800 from ITEACH U.S., a Texas company that provides alternative teacher certification; and $1,000 from Kevin McAliley, CEO of educational services company Apangea Learning.

— Supporters of Bennett’s “choice and competition” agenda Continue reading