what comes next?

Ritz is out, McCormick is in. What does that mean for Indiana education?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A second-grader in Wayne Township works on a reading assignment.

The stunning upset in Tuesday’s state superintendents race that put an end to Democrat Glenda Ritz’s tumultuous tenure as the state’s top education official has left many of her supporters fearing for the worst.

Some teachers — perhaps jokingly — took to social media to claim they would leave teaching now that teachers’ strongest defender in state government has been ousted. As the only Democrat elected to a statewide office, Ritz has often been a lone voice of dissent as the Republicans who led the rest of state government cut back on teacher benefits and pursued controversial education reforms such as the expansion of charter schools and of private school vouchers.

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.

And once the new superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, takes over in January, all top state offices will be Republicans, and that voice seems likely to go quiet — or be heard only behind the scenes.

McCormick, the current superintendent of Yorktown schools, actually shares Ritz’s views on issues like increasing teacher pay and adjusting school funding so it’s more fair for poor children. But unlike Ritz, she’s not as likely to butt heads with her fellow Republicans.

She might speak up to defend teachers — and does differ from her Republican colleagues in some key ways — but McCormick will likely have an easier time than Ritz, a Democrat, working alongside the administration of Governor-elect Eric Holcomb and the Republicans who lead the state legislature based on what we know about their education priorities. This is particularly true when it comes to testing and preschool.

“(McCormick) and Eric will work well together,” said Betsy Wiley, CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice and supported McCormick’s campaign. “She will work well with all constituencies.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard optimism from his members about McCormick’s aim to have more frequent and direct communication between schools, districts and the Indiana Department of Education. That aspect of her campaign resonated with school leaders who hope the strategy will benefit schools, he said.

“Dr. McCormick’s message was being heard pretty well in the field — the idea of trying to streamline and make sure the communication was effective,” Bess said. “Her comments also about being able to work and build the relationships with the General Assembly, that’s certainly easier when you’re a Republican in a Republican majority.”

How McCormick’s approach to politics will differ from Ritz’s remains to be seen, but the two have many overlapping policy positions, especially when it comes to issues concerning the classroom. Both have spoken out against over-testing and have raised concerns about losing teachers to other professions.

“There were some thing that they both really have similar thoughts on,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “They’re both really concerned about testing and retention and compensation of teachers.”

The state superintendent doesn’t have the power to pass laws in Indiana but she oversees the state education department, which makes decisions over things like test development and on-the-ground school improvement strategies.

In the coming years, McCormick will likely have great influence over the state’s next steps as it continues its push to abolish the state’s unpopular ISTEP exam and replace it with something better.

While McCormick’s testing vision differs greatly from Ritz’s, this is one area where things will likely continue as they would have if Ritz had stayed in office because lawmakers — not superintendents — ultimately will decide what kind of test Indiana students should take.

McCormick and Ritz both agreed that the state’s current school grading system that slaps a single A-F grade on schools based largely on student test scores in overly simplistic, but McCormick’s supporters say that system is more likely to change under McCormick because GOP lawmakers might be more willing to collaborate with a fellow Republican on a different approach.

Advocates of traditional public schools might worry that another Republican leading the education department will open the door to more charter schools and vouchers.

But while McCormick welcomes school choice for Indiana families, she’s also a career public school educator who in Yorktown was charged with balancing a district’s budget. She certainly hasn’t convinced everyone she’s different from her Republican predecessor Tony Bennett, but she vowed on the campaign trail to oppose programs that would divert money from traditional public schools.

That’s a potential line in the sand with the Holcomb administration. The governor-elect has said he’s a strong supporter of school choice. He served as lieutenant governor to Gov. Mike Pence, who pushed harder and further for school choice than any governor in Indiana history.

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.