By John Krull TheStatehouseFile.com INDIANAPOLIS – Deciding early not to run for re-election seems to have liberated Jennifer McCormick. The Indiana superintendent for public instruction and I talk over the air about her surprise announcement earlier this autumn that she wouldn’t be a candidate in 2020. We also chat about schools, students and the education […]
The post Commentary: What Indiana’s education chief learned along the way appeared first on TheStatehouseFile.com.
Deciding early not to run for re-election seems to have liberated Jennifer McCormick.
The Indiana superintendent for public instruction and I talk over the air about her surprise announcement earlier this autumn that she wouldn’t be a candidate in 2020. We also chat about schools, students and the education wars in Indiana.
McCormick, a confident woman who smiles and laughs often, says what she thinks. She’s smart — certainly smart enough to have mastered the politician’s trick of avoiding difficult questions with clever evasions — but it’s clear she has little time and even less patience for such games.
“You’ve got to be true to yourself,” she says several times, almost as a refrain, during our conversation.
McCormick says she was naïve when she ran for and was elected to the state’s top education post.
Conventional wisdom didn’t have her winning that race. She was a little-known Republican from northeast Indiana running against Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz, who had a reputation as a giant killer and was the champion of public-school teachers and parents in Indiana.
Republicans in the governor’s office and the Indiana General Assembly had warred with Ritz for our years over education policy.
McCormick says when she came into office, one of her top priorities was to try to calm the waters. She says she wanted to take the politics out of schooling the state’s children.
I point out that well more than half of Indiana’s budget is spent on educating Hoosier students and ask whether it’s possible, given the vast sums involved, to remove politics from the process.
No, she says, “but there shouldn’t be this much.”
Worse, she says all the political squabbling and maneuvering for partisan advantage have hurt and are hurting Indiana’s children.
I ask McCormick who’s to blame for this dysfunction.
She cites the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the school choice/education reform organizations, all of whom spend substantial sums of cash trying to shape the state’s policies. She says the chamber and the voucher organizations all have agendas — agendas that are grounded by neither fact nor reality.
“You’ve got to study the data,” she says, to shape school policy.
Too often, that’s not happening.
To balance the scales, I ask her about the role of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which also lobbies state government aggressively and tends to support Democrats.
McCormick says she doesn’t agree with ISTA on everything, but then says that the teachers’ union isn’t anywhere near as overbearing or ideologically driven as the special interests on the other side of the debate.
That was the real source of her naivete, she says.
When she came into office, she didn’t understand how much power the interest groups had over the state’s schools — and how little power parents and students have.
McCormick says she fears this will become even more true once the superintendent of public instruction becomes an appointed, rather than an elected, position.
She says she understands that the governor bears tremendous responsibility for the state’s budget and for the welfare of the state’s students, so it makes sense to allow Indiana’s chief executive to have more authority over schools.
But she also says parents need to have a way to make their voices and their concerns heard other than voting for the governor every four years. She suggests that making the state’s education board elected rather than appointed might be a way to do that.
Otherwise, she suggests, the influence of the special-interest groups driving Indiana’s education policy will grow stronger.
And that of the state’s parents and students only will diminish.
We’re coming to the end of our hour together.
I ask McCormick what advice, with the benefit of hindsight, she would give to the Jennifer McCormick who first began to run for state superintendent of public instruction.
She shakes her head just a little bit and smiles.
“You’ve got to be true to yourself,” she says.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” on WFYI (90.1 FM) Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].