A push for change

Governor-elect’s proposal would make future Indiana schools chiefs appointed, not elected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb presents his 2017 legislative agenda.

Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb today announced that beginning in 2021, he wants to make Indiana’s elected schools chief a governor-appointed position.

“This is not about the person, me or the superintendent,” Holcomb said, referring to the state Superintendent-Elect, Republican Jennifer McCormick. “This is about the position and how it can be aligned (with the governor’s office) and work truly together.”

Holcomb said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, would author the bill. Despite earlier comments from Bosma that he might not push for such a proposal this year, Bosma has said he’s long supported appointing the state superintendent.

Holcomb would not say whether McCormick supported the proposal. The secretary of education would report directly to the governor as part of the cabinet.

McCormick, formerly a school superintendent in Yorktown, near Muncie, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Less than two months ago, legislative leaders in both parties were not definitive about whether they’d want the superintendent position to be elected or appointed, or when that change might take place.

Politically, this move has been a long time coming. Former Gov. Mike Pence, now the U.S. Vice President-Elect, frequently butted heads with former Democrat state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over issues of testing, school A-F grades and who shapes the state’s education policy.

Those battles sparked conversations among lawmakers as recently as 2015 about making the position appointed, which most states already do. Ultimately, those conversations did not end with a change to the elected office. Instead, the law said that the state superintendent would be removed as the automatic leader of the Indiana State Board of Education after 2016.

Ritz served in the position through last month. Until a stunning loss in November, Ritz was the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

The proposal, if it passes the General Assembly, would not take effect until after McCormick’s upcoming term as Indiana’s top education official. She will be sworn in Monday and serves through 2020.

Today, House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said he could be convinced either way about whether electing or appointing is better, which marks a change from recent Democrat priorities to keep the state superintendent position strong and independent from the governor’s office.

“This idea has been kicked around between the parties for a long period of time,” Pelath said. “I just have to say as an individual taxpaying Hoosier, I can see the merits both ways. I’ve had an open mind to those things.”

However, Pelath said, he’s not sure the public will be as understanding. And really, he said, what matters is whether this change will result in any improvements to education overall.

“Making an office appointed when it’s been elected is always a bit of a tough sell,” Pelath said. “It’s one thing to make a change in how the office is picked. What policies follow — those are what really matter. And if it doesn’t make a change, then it’s not really much of a reform.”

Holcomb is expected to present his full budget plan next week, and Bosma said his bill will be filed on Monday.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.