Holcomb’s education plan touts school choice, measured preschool expansion

As Indiana governor’s race starts to heat up, both candidates have now spelled out a clear vision for how they would try to improve schools throughout the state—and there are several major differences between them.

Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb unveiled his education plan for the first time Monday in a speech to education leaders. The two candidates continued the education-related discussion Tuesday during their first formal debate.

“I’m not blind to the issues and challenges you and your teammates face each and every day,” Holcomb said, addressing a joint conference of the Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “I will seek your insights.”

Holcomb, a Republican, spoke just after his Democratic opponent, John Gregg, addressed the group.

Gregg, who first released his education plan earlier this month, also promised to better involve educators in state policy decisions, but beyond that, the two have sharply different positions on key issues in education. Some examples:

Charter schools and vouchers: Holcomb said he strongly supports Indiana’s fast-growing school choice programs, while Gregg blasted for-profit charter schools as hurting public education.

Preschool: Gregg is pushing a plan for universal, state-funded preschool for all 4-year-olds, but Holcomb wants to expand Indiana’s preschool pilot program in stages and pay just for lower-income children to attend, not all 4-year-olds.

ISTEP: Holcomb said he wants changes to the state testing program, but rejected a plan supported by Gregg and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz that would spread out state tests into smaller exams given several times a year.

A five-point education plan Holcomb released after the event lists his priorities as expanding preschool options, building Indiana’s K-12 school system into the best in the country, attracting and retaining quality teachers, making college affordable and providing career preparation to match 21st century job skills.

But Gregg, who went first in their back-to-back speeches, criticized the choices of the last two Republican governors, both of whom Holcomb worked closely with. Besides pushing for universal preschool and reimagining ISTEP, Gregg has called for eliminating textbook fees and shifting more power to make education decisions from the statehouse to local school boards.

“Why in the world the legislature and administration in the last few years has decided they should be the local school board is beyond me,” Gregg said. “This can’t continue to be about politics. There should not be one Democratic idea or one Republican idea. Ideology in education has no place. It should be about ideas. It should be about the pupils and not about politics.”

After each speech, the candidates were asked about school choice, school funding and how to address any teacher shortages.

“At my very foundation, I think parents can best determine where their child should go—to a school that can meet their needs,” Holcomb said. “They ought to have the ability to do that regardless of their zip codes. The menu of options we have in Indiana should continue. They should not compete with each other. They should complement each other. “

Both candidates said they wanted a state test that was scored and returned to teachers more quickly so the results can be used to guide instruction.

“We can do it,” Gregg said. “It’s just that we have a failed system right now.”

On funding, Gregg said school choice programs were draining away dollars needed by traditional public schools. Holcomb said more money should flow to special education and English-language learning programs.

“I believe the dollars should follow the child,” Holcomb said, “but I’m open to conversation on how to continually improve on that system.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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