Gregg: The only way politicians can help Indiana schools is by working together

(Chalkbeat is profiling the two candidates for governor and their education policies. To read Eric Holcomb’s profile, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.)

John Gregg was driving a rented Mustang convertible headed for Key West in November 2012 when he got a call from Republican Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma — a political adversary but also an old law school pal.

Bosma asked an odd question: Did Gregg know Tony Bennett?

Not really, Gregg said. He had only briefly met Bennett, the state’s schools superintendent, but just days before, Gregg and Bennett were both in the headlines back in Indiana for the same reason: They had both just lost an election.

Gregg, a Democrat, had lost a close race for governor to Republican Mike Pence while Bennett, a Republican, had been unseated by his Democratic opponent Glenda Ritz in one of the biggest political upsets in recent Indiana history.

And now, by coincidence, they were both on vacation in Key West, nursing their wounds. Bosma knew Gregg, also a former Indiana House speaker, had been through the ups and downs of politics for years, but he was worried about how Bennett, a former superintendent who lost re-election in just his second political race, was taking the defeat.

He asked: would Gregg be willing to reach out to Bennett?

Gregg hung up the phone and immediately called Bennett’s number, inviting him and his wife to breakfast. The two couples had a great time, talking for hours about people they met and places around the state they visited on the campaign, Gregg said.

“We’ve lost civility, which is sad,” Gregg said about politics in 2016. “I’ll do anything I can do to return civility. It’s like our founding fathers — you can have vehement disagreement. But we can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Now, four years later, as Gregg tries once again to become Indiana’s governor, running against Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, he said he hopes to use the spirit of that cross-party connection to re-establish a working relationship between Republicans and Democrats in Indiana.

That means, when it comes to education issues, Gregg says he will re-establish a productive working relationship with the state superintendent, whether Ritz is re-elected or is replaced by her Republican challenger Jennifer McCormick.

After four years of heated political battles between Ritz and Pence, Gregg also believes his relationships across the aisle from his time in the legislature can help the parties work better together.

“I’ve done it my entire career,” he said, noting that he was elected Speaker in 1996 by an evenly divided House — 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans — which forced the parties to work together.

“Every piece of legislation that landed on the governor’s desk — if it was about highway funding, or education, or the criminal or civil law of Indiana and every state budget — had Democratic and Republican support,” Gregg said. “It had to.”

But several of Gregg’s education proposals — including his pledge to reduce testing and his plan to create a state-funded preschool program open to every Indiana four-year-old — run contrary to Republican positions. So if he’s elected, his goal of cross-party collaboration will surely not be easy to achieve.

Gregg, who grew up in rural Sandborn, Ind. and worked for a coal company before becoming a lawyer and then serving as a state representative for 16 years, has also called for a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math in K-12 schools.

Informed by his past role as the interim president of Vincennes University, a job he filled after leaving the legislature, Gregg is also pushing for college affordability, workforce training and programs that would better connect students with careers. He’s also called for involving teachers more in state policy decisions and eliminating textbook fees families must pay.

Here’s where Gregg said he stands on some of Indiana’s biggest K-12 education issues:

School choice

The attention focused on expanding school choice options in Indiana over the past five years, through charter schools and the state’s private school tuition voucher program, has gone too far, Gregg said. More attention needs to be on the traditional public schools that most Indiana students attend, he said.

“We have a million kids in public schools in the state of Indiana and we have, what, 50,000 in charters and 80,000 in faith-based schools?” he said. “We are talking about a very small amount. Seventy of Indiana’s 92 counties only have (traditional) public schools.”

Changes in state law in recent years — especially when the legislature created the private school tuition voucher program, extended charter school sponsorship to private universities and made other changes in 2011 — have advantaged choice schools over traditional public schools, Gregg said.

“When charter schools started and had safeguards, they were showing remarkable results,” he said. “But remember, they had licensed teachers, they had controls, they were playing on the same level as our public schools.”

“It’s not a level playing field anymore,” he said.

The future of ISTEP

When state testing was first proposed in 1987, Gregg was in his second year in the legislature. He said he called several of his former teachers and asked what they thought. One warned that even if the test could being helpful to teachers and schools, lawmakers likely would be tempted to eventually judge schools and teachers by the results.

“They had no problem with accountability,” he said of the teachers he spoke with at the time. “They were afraid they’d eventually have to start teaching to the test. I voted against it.”

Today Gregg favors a proposal from Ritz to break the state exam into smaller tests that would be given throughout the year. Rtiz’s goal is to reduce the anxiety around the longer, once-a-year exam and hopefully return results to teachers earlier in the year so they can be used to guide instruction.

“I think you can accomplish the same thing without the pressure and getting back the instant feedback so the teacher can change or continue what they are doing and help the individual student,” he said.

School accountability

Gregg is not a fan of using state takeovers to address problems in schools with persistently low test scores, he said. He’s particularly critical of the decision by Bennett to hire for-profit management companies to run four of the five schools that the state took over in 2012.

“That was a fiasco, bringing in for-profits to run the schools,” he said.

But asked what the state should do to help schools whose students are struggling academically, Gregg stopped short of offering a solution. Instead he called for a broad, bipartisan discussion.

“There is no easy answer,” he said. “When you’ve got a school corporation that is failing it requires drastic measures and taking action. It’s recognizing and taking that action. We know a couple things that aren’t working — doing nothing and bringing in outside for-profits.”

One solution to explore, he said, is giving school districts more flexibility to experiment. He pointed to Indianapolis Public Schools and its effort to create autonomous “innovation” schools under a special state law.

“We could be making significant changes if we give local boards a little bit more flexibility,” he said. “You’re seeing what the IPS system is doing. They’ve been exercising some flexibility. A lot of school corporations don’t have the same flexibility.”

Collaboration with the state superintendent

Gregg was critical of changes in state law that stripped the state superintendent of her role as chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education and sought to limit her control over education policy decisions.

“I plan on being elected governor,” he said. “I would be shocked if (Senate President) David Long and (House Speaker) Brian Bosma decided they were going to start stripping power from the governor. That’s what happened in the last election. That’s what they did to Glenda.”

Working with Republicans, whether it’s the state superintendent or legislative leaders, would be a hallmark of his approach to governing on education issues, Gregg said.

“I’m very likely going to be dealing with Republicans,” he said. “If you ignore the party labels and just focus on what’s a good idea and a bad idea you can get things done.”

School funding

Indiana needs to recognize that the huge divide between poor and wealthy students on test scores — the achievement gap — is no coincidence, Gregg said.

“I think there is obviously correlation between poverty and education level,” he said.

Funding preschool, he said, is an especially good way to give those children a stronger start in school.


Gregg and Ritz argue the state can afford to pay for preschool for all four-year-old who want to attend. Their program would not make preschool mandatory but would make it free to any family that wants to enroll a child.

That’s a much larger — and more expensive — program than the one Holcomb has advocated. The GOP nominee says he favors expanding preschool more slowly and only providing tuition support to poor families.

Gregg said Indiana is being left behind with its slow embrace of preschool.

“When I started out campaigning on this issue a year ago there were 39 states (with programs supporting preschool), he said. “Today there are 42 states that have it. All we have is a small pilot program. It’s in five counties and it serves 1,500 kids. We’ve got 80,000. It benefits everyone and the dollars are there.”

Teacher shortages

Asked why some schools seem to be having trouble hiring teachers, Gregg fixed the blame on Indiana’s move toward test-based accountability.

“We created the teacher shortage,” he said.

The problem, according to Gregg, is that teachers have been shut out of decisions about how accountability should work.

“We would not be in this mess had we allowed teachers to have a voice in some of this,” he said. “There is that group that wants to blame the teachers. You have to have buy-in from everyone on the team. That means they need to be sitting at the table.”