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.


Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “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’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.

changing of the guard

Will Indiana Republicans now move to make the state superintendent job appointed?

Now that a Republican is heading into the state superintendent office in January, Indiana lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — might start singing a different tune about the powers of that office.

The office has been the subject of dispute since 2012 when Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a surprise upset, becoming the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

Since then, as Ritz clashed repeatedly with Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP lawmakers,  Republicans have openly questioned the role of Indiana’s state superintendent, suggesting the job should have less power and should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

During Ritz’s superintendency, GOP lawmakers passed a bill giving the Indiana State Board of Education the right to choose its own leader rather than having the superintendent automatically assigned as board chair.

But in the weeks since Republican Jennifer McCormick blocked Ritz’s re-election bid, the GOP resolve to limit the state superintendent’s powers seems to have diminished.

There might also be changes on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats signaled their support for a strong superintendent could waver.

At Tuesday’s legislative Organization Day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s advocated for reducing the superintendent’s power “for 30 years” but that he didn’t think he’ll make that a priority for the next legislative session beginning in January.

“I want to have a discussion with the superintendent-elect,” he said. “It’s probably not an issue for this session. Perhaps next.”

For Democrats who were in office when Indiana had Democratic governors, the question of appointing the state superintendent is a sticky one. Back then, Indiana had a Republican state superintendent and many Democrats argued the governor should appoint that position in order to have consistency in education policymaking.

But with Ritz in the role and constantly crossing swords with Pence, Democrats defended her against calls to strip power from her office.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said that’s why big changes, like taking away voters’ option to choose the state superintendent, shouldn’t be made lightly.

“On balance I think people like more choices rather than fewer at the ballot box,” he said. “I think we’ve had a system that has more or less functioned over a period of time. We shouldn’t change it without a great deal of hesitation.”

Even so, Pelath said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to making the superintendent job appointed.

“I have an open mind,” he said. “I could be convinced either way.”

With McCormick in and Ritz out, there could be a lot of second guessing on key questions about her role and her power.

Bosma was among a majority of Republicans who successfully backed a bill to change that longstanding rule, instead allowing the 11 board members to pick their own leader. Democrats opposed the change, arguing that it was a blatant attempt to take power away from the superintendent.

After fighting to give the board the option to choose someone besides the state superintendent as chair] — a right that kicks in for the first time next year —  Bosma declined to say whether he thinks the board members should simply select McCormick for the role. “I have not made a determination on that,” he said.

Pelath said he still thinks the state superintendent should chair the board, even if it’s McCormick.

“That’s one you can’t have both ways,” he said. “I support the way that it was before the attacks on Superintendent Ritz and the stripping of her abilities. If we’re going to have a state superintendent this person should be empowered to do something about education.”

Bosma said he wants to let the changes the legislature made to the state board play out.

“I think the system we put into place has worked,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. We’ll let the new superintendent get her legs under herself first and get the Department of Education back on track, because I’m not sure it is right now, and let the dust settle.”