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Candidates promise to end bickering in education—no matter who wins

August 20, 2016
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Glenda Ritz (D), left, and Jennifer McCormick (R) are candidates for superintendent of public instruction. (Photos courtesy of Ritz and McCormick campaigns)

If elected governor, Republican Eric Holcomb and Democrat John Gregg would no doubt take different approaches to shaping education policy in Indiana.

But the gubernatorial candidates, and their parties’ respective nominees for superintendent of public instruction, say they want to put an end to the partisan bickering over education that coursed through Gov. Mike Pence’s term.

“What not to do is to put politics ahead of the students,” said Gregg, who is running alongside Democratic state schools chief Glenda Ritz, who is seeking re-election. “That has happened for four years. I will work with Glenda Ritz or whoever the school superintendent is to advance education. I intend to ... respect that position.”

And Holcomb, the current lieutenant governor who is running on the Republican ticket with Yorktown Community Schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick as the school superintendent nominee, said he “can and will work with anyone.”

focus-glenda-ritz-submitted1-15col.jpg After Democrat Glenda Ritz, left, unexpectedly won the state superintendent’s race four years ago, Republicans tried to usurp her power. (Photo courtesy of Ritz's campaigns)

“I’m interested in building coalitions and finding solutions,” Holcomb told IBJ. “My entire time in public service has been spent bringing people with different ideas and opinions together to do big things. In fact, I want people at the table who disagree with me.”

Pence had frequent dust-ups with Ritz from the time they both took office in 2013 after her surprise election the previous fall, where she ousted former schools chief Tony Bennett, who shared former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ penchant for accountability-based school reform.

There was a lawsuit she filed against the governor-appointed State Board of Education, Pence’s creation of a shadow education agency that Ritz said usurped her power, and Pence’s support of legislation that ended up removing her as chairwoman of the policymaking state board.

And those are just a few highlights. The fights became so bitter that the Washington Post in 2015 wrote an article titled, “It’s a mess in Indiana,” which focused solely on the education battles.

Overall, Pence’s term was a time of intense change for education policy. The state repealed the Common Core standards and replaced them with a similar state version, students took a new and harder ISTEP exam, and the state changed its A-F grade accountability system.

focus-jennifer-mccormick-submitted-15col.jpg Now, Republican Jennifer McCormick is trying to unseat Ritz, who is seeking reelection. (Photo courtesy of McCormick's campaign)

And the next four years also have changes in store. State education policymakers are in the process of designing a new testing system to replace ISTEP, which was repealed earlier this year over concerns from both sides of the aisle about too much testing. A new test will first be used in spring 2018. And the state still faces broader questions about teacher recruitment and retention.

But state education observers say there could be less appetite now for continued drastic changes. Call it education-reform fatigue.

“Education policy has been so much a part of state politics” throughout the Pence and Daniels administrations, said Steve Hinnefeld, a former reporter who writes about education policy on his “School Matters” blog. “I think there is a sense now that people want to step back and figure out what’s made sense and what hasn’t.

There’s been so much pushback from the left and from the right.”

The two gubernatorial candidates and their respective parties’ state school superintendent nominees sketched out different plans for education in Indiana. Here’s a look at the two visions:

Republicans

Holcomb hasn’t had much time to formulate—much less communicate—his education agenda on the campaign trail. He stepped into the role of the Republican gubernatorial nominee after Pence left the ticket in July to become presidential candidate Donald Trump’s running mate.

The lieutenant governor declined an interview through a spokesman, saying he didn’t have time. But he responded by email to IBJ’s questions about his views on education policy. He expressed strong support for McCormick.

“I’ve had conversations with Dr. McCormick and know she’s experienced, overly qualified, and ready to lead,” Holcomb told IBJ. “I can and will work with anyone, but I can’t think of a more valuable qualification for a state superintendent than having been one at the school district level.”

Holcomb was chief of staff to Daniels, which Hinnefeld said could signal that he shares “Daniels’ commitment to the whole idea of competition and accountability” and would follow their reform agenda.

That included a set of laws, championed by Daniels and Bennett, passed in 2011 that limited teacher union collective bargaining, required teacher evaluations to consider test scores as a factor in determining whether teachers received raises, extended to private universities the ability to sponsor charter schools, and created the private-school voucher system.

Pence, on the other hand, Hinnefeld said, was more ideological in his approach to education than Daniels, and seemed to base his priorities more on his religious leanings, which came across as strong support for vouchers, which allow students to use tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition. The No. 1 reason parents use school vouchers is for religious schooling, according to a 2016 survey by Ed Choice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation.

focus-superintendent-racebox.gif“I know there’s a [conservative] constituency for religious education and it will be interesting to see how Holcomb navigates that area,” Hinnefeld said.

Holcomb told IBJ he believes the state “should offer families the freedom to choose the school environment that best fits their needs.”

“For that reason, I believe our current [voucher] program has been a success,” Holcomb said. “School choice has given thousands of students—particularly those from low-income families—opportunities they once didn’t have.”

He also said he believed charter schools should be held to the same standards as public schools.

“Some schools succeed; some schools fail,” he said. “And when they fail, they should be shut down.”

And Holcomb said he supports efforts to expand state funding for pre-kindergarten to poor Indiana families. He recently praised a group of preschool advocates who said they planned to ask the Legislature to expand Pence’s 2014 preschool pilot program across the state by saying, they “won’t have to lobby me.”

“Every child having access to an early childhood education is a good thing,” Holcomb told IBJ. “That’s why, if elected governor, I look forward to working with the Indiana Legislature and school corporations to find affordable and responsible ways to bring early childhood education first to those who need it the most.”

McCormick is running for state schools superintendent as a new player in state politics. The former special education teacher, middle school teacher and building principal said “it was never on my radar” to run for office, but she was called to action by what she describes as Ritz’s poor leadership of the Indiana Department of Education.

“The last three years have been really difficult,” McCormick said. “Things have become very disorganized and disconnected. The communication going to schools has been splintered. We need people who will call us back, who will return emails. I have no huge political agenda. I got into it simply to help.”

McCormick called herself a believer in school choice, but said her goal is to make sure Indiana’s public schools become that choice for parents.

And she said issues surrounding teacher recruitment and retention are important to her. McCormick said she wants to use data to make the argument to the Indiana General Assembly that teachers should be more highly compensated to attract talented people to the field.

“I would argue we’ve done a pretty nice job of beating people up,” McCormick said. “No one wants bad teachers in the classroom. People in the trenches are doing a nice job. We’re lacking in that celebration. That’s got to be more purposeful across the board.”

On the topic of expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten, McCormick said she is a “firm believer in the benefits of quality pre-K programs, and even quality day-care programs” but she cautioned against a “massive rollout” of universal preschool, instead suggesting it should be targeted to poor students.

“We need to make sure we have a solid funding source that’s realistic,” McCormick said.

Democrats

Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates are touting a plan for a universal preschool program.

focus-governor-racebox.gifGregg and Ritz have pitched a plan for optional universal preschool for 4-year-olds, which is estimated to cost $150 million a year. The candidates have said the state could pay for the program by seeking federal grants and redirecting other state education funds, including savings from changing to a different state testing system.

Gregg insists that universal preschool is in line with fiscally conservative ideals. It is sure to be a hot topic at the Indiana General Assembly in 2017 as lawmakers craft the next two-year state budget.

“We do not have to raise taxes to put this very worthwhile program in effect,” Gregg said. “The money is there. It’s just reprioritizing, cutting out waste and inefficiency.”

But Gregg said his first priority as governor regarding education is to empower teachers.

“We have demonized the teachers and blamed them for social concerns and problems,” Gregg said. “Then we don’t allow them to tell us how to fix it. The agents of change are classroom teachers. If a classroom teacher is not going to have a seat at the table, input and buy-in, it’s not going to work.”

Gregg said he is also concerned about the “skilled labor shortage” and said he wants to focus on preparing students in high school for high-wage jobs. He said he will do this better than the Pence administration has by reducing silos in the myriad state efforts and regional groups that attempt to tackle the problem.

“I met with a businessman out of Lafayette who could use over 100 truck drivers and needed them yesterday,” Gregg said. “Why aren’t we telling the students as they’re going through high school? We’re going to throw out who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican and make it about skilled jobs, make it about the students.”

Gregg also wants to stop expanding the state’s school voucher system, which allows students to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools. He said he is opposed to the program but “that cat is out of the bag” and he wouldn’t seek to get rid of it.

He’s also “adamant” about tougher accountability for charter schools. Gregg said he remembers bipartisan support for the bill sanctioning charter schools that passed when he was Indiana House speaker. But he said the state has departed from the “original mission” and some of the schools run by for-profit companies “scare” him.

“Any time you’re taking money and not really educating a student, not only is it our tax dollars being misspent, but we are doing something wrong to a young person who’s going out into the workforce for the next 40 years,” Gregg said.

And Ritz is asking voters for another four years to continue with what she describes as a bottom-up, grass-roots approach to serving schools. She defended herself against criticism that she has not been an organized manager of the DOE, saying she has reorganized it to break down silos.

Ritz said her greatest accomplishment has been in increasing outreach to schools. She leads a team of 13 regional outreach coordinators that serve the state's schools, working directly with principals.

She said the needs vary from school to school, so the outreach coordinators help principals in a variety of areas, from making sure they have food programs set up year-round, to coordinating community resources, to observing and guiding instruction, to helping schools use federal Title 1 funds to their maximum potential.

“My team and I replaced a school-takeover mentality with a school-outreach system,” Ritz said. “They know I’m in their corner.”

For instance, Ritz said her department’s outreach team is beginning work in the Scott County town of Austin, which grabbed headlines last year as the center of the state’s HIV breakout crisis. Her team is helping to coordinate mental health and other child services.

Ritz, who won in 2012 with the help of grass-roots support, has kept that going. She travels two or three days each week to visit schools in all corners of the state.

Perhaps outreach became such a big focus for Ritz because she had trouble getting buy-in to do much else. She said the biggest challenge of her first term was dealing with the political dramas related to Pence and the State Board of Education.

She said she “quickly figured out I have work to do with schools.”

“I don’t need anybody’s permission to do good work,” Ritz said.

She said the poverty she sees out in the state worries her. And she said she believes that, during Pence’s term, the state has not “tied education policies to economic strategies.”

“We have great need,” Ritz said. “We have a great number of parents working two minimum-wage jobs.”

If she’s re-elected with Holcomb at the top of the ticket, Ritz said her “approach to serving children will not change.”

But she is crossing her fingers for a Democratic victory.

“I’m not going to shy away from saying that John Gregg is the governor I want to move things forward.”•

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