2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of John Gregg on education: Pushing for changes on preschool, testing

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Democrat John Gregg, left, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Indianapolis. Libertarian Rex Bell and Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb also participated in the debate.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about John Gregg’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Eric Holcomb, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

When it comes to education, John Gregg is somewhat skeptical of the education reforms of the last two decades.

As a leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, he voted against the creation of the ISTEP test after a round of calls to his former teachers left him worried that the exam would someday be used to punish teachers and schools. As a lawmaker, he was a strong advocate for traditional public schools, pushing for additional funds for school districts.

But he’s also a pragmatist. Now that’s he’s running for governor in his second try as the state’s Democratic nominee, he has avoided calling for wholesale changes to the state’s education system. Rather he has proposed new programs, like a preschool expansion, and an overhaul of ISTEP, which the state has plans to redesign anyway.

From a small town to the big city

Small town roots in Sandborn, Ind., are a big part of Gregg’s political identity. It’s a small Southern Indiana town of about 400 people. His own education also started small. After graduating from North Knox High School, Gregg attended Vincennes University, where he earned an associate’s degree.

He eventually earned three more degrees: a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Indiana University, a master’s degree in public administration from Indiana State University and a law degree from Indiana.

Gregg, 62, worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for coal companies before he won a seat in the Indiana House in 1986. He built alliances with organized labor but also forged a reputation for working across the aisle that culminated in his selection as speaker in 1996. He led a House that was evenly divided — 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

It’s that experience Gregg often cites as evidence that he can bridge deep political divides on education policy in Indiana.

A second shot to run for governor

Greg left the Indiana House in 2002 and has worked for an Indianapolis law firm since 2005. But in 2012 he re-emerged on the state political scene as the Democrats’ choice to run against Republican Mike Pence for governor.

Pence was returning after more than a decade serving in Washington as an Indiana congressman. The two candidates were vying to replace Mitch Daniels, a popular two-term Republican governor who couldn’t run again due to term limits.

Pence had several advantages going into the race. Indiana leans Republican, he was promising to continue Daniels’ legacy and he was a well-known political figure. Gregg had an uphill path as a Democrat who had been out of office for 10 years.

But Gregg ran more strongly than expected, losing to Pence by just three percentage points. Pence struggled in his first term with backlash from his support of an unpopular legislative push for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which many viewed as discriminatory to gays and lesbians. He also battled state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over the direction of the state’s education policy.

About two years ago, Gregg began working toward another run against Pence. But when Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump picked Pence as his vice presidential running mate,Gregg found himself facing Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Holcomb has largely aligned with Pence’s education positions, while promising to be more collaborative. Gregg has strongly aligned with Ritz on policy.

What would Democratic control mean?

If Gregg is elected, he could offer considerable support to Ritz, who has clashed with Pence and with his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education. Going forward, for example, if Gregg were governor, he could appoint state board members who are friendlier to Ritz’s positions.

On policy, Gregg has promised to:

Expand preschool. Pence fought to establish a small pilot program in five counties that helps pay preschool tuition for about 1,500 poor children. That was a first for Indiana, but Gregg wants to go farther. He and Ritz are pushing for statewide universal preschool that would ensure any four-year-old could enroll without cost. This is his signature education proposal.

Testing. Pence has signed onto Ritz’s vision of an state exam that is broken down into smaller tests that would be administered several times during the year. He’d also like to see Indiana use a cheaper “off the shelf” exam rather than continuing to create its own, more expensive test every year.

School choice. The state has placed too much emphasis on choice programs such as charter schools and private school vouchers at the expense of traditional public schools,

Local control. Gregg has said he would push to give local school districts more freedom to try innovative ideas, speaking admiringly about Indianapolis Public Schools’ autonomous “innovation” schools, which are schools that have remained a part of the district even as their management has been turned over to independent school managers.

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:

At-large

Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.