Political newcomer Jennifer McCormick touts management experience in race for state superintendent

Update: Read more about Jennifer McCormick’s vision for Indiana education policy and plans for state testing. Also, she shared some personal anecdotes about her time teaching.

Jennifer McCormick’s campaign for state superintendent hinges on voters believing she’d be a better overall manager than Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz.

The Republican Yorktown superintendent has trumpeted the need for clearer, more frequent communication between the Indiana Department of Education and school leaders.

“You are put in that office — it’s a privilege to serve in that office, and now you have an obligation to lead,” McCormick said. “It’s not an option not to communicate.”

And as she begins to introduce to herself to voters, McCormick, a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in her northeastern Indiana school district, is highlighting her experience as a steady, organized manager.

McCormick is trying to draw a contrast with Ritz, a longtime teacher who had relatively little management experience before becoming state superintendent four years ago. Ritz spent much of her first term clashing with Republican lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence over testing, academic standards and school choice, creating political tensions that McCormick says have overshadowed the needs of schools.

“I’m all about taking politics out of it and putting the students first,” McCormick said. “I think we’ve lost that.”

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

But as a political unknown who has never run for office, the New Castle native isn’t giving voters much indication yet of what her plans are regarding the education policy disputes that have defined Ritz’s tenure.

Although she has come out on some controversial issues — she is in favor of both vouchers and charter schools, saying parents should be able to choose the best schools for children — her campaign website currently lists few specifics about her stances on testing, accountability, school funding or preschool. The website merely highlights a few points as “non-negotiables,” such as a “credible statewide assessment system.”

Other “non-negotiables” listed on her website are broad statements, such as the need for “quality tools to enhance instruction and support teachers.”

She has mentioned a few areas where she’d like to see change, just not necessarily how she’d do it — she thinks school accountability shouldn’t be based solely on test scores, and she’d support less punitive testing and teacher evaluation systems that are more useful for educators.

She’s also interested in raising pay for teachers, increasing access to technology across the state and addressing inequities in school funding, particularly in how districts have been affected since the state decided to remove property taxes from school districts’ general funds.

Ritz, in contrast, has been increasingly specific about her vision for the state’s education policy. In June she came out ahead of just about every education policymaker in the state in introducing the goals and priorities for her second administration and the 2017 legislative session.

Some McCormick supporters say they’re not worried about the candidate’ lack of specifics because her skills and experience — as both a teacher and an administrator — suggest she’ll make good decisions.

“McCormick’s professional resume gives me a lot of confidence,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization whose Political Action Committee has contributed $10,000 to McCormick’s campaign. “When you look at the people that the (state superintendent) works directly with, which is obviously our teachers and administrators, she’s been all of that.”

But others say they need to hear a lot more before they can assess her fitness for the job.

“I don’t really see anything yet,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “I have nothing to say about her.”

While McCormick’s statewide plans are still in the works, her colleagues and friends in Yorktown said she’s been plenty busy making things happen at a local level.

“If she has to adjust her path to be able to succeed in what she’s trying to accomplish, she very quickly can do that,” said Mary Ann Stroeh, a retired Yorktown teacher who’s known McCormick for more than a decade. “And she does it with enthusiasm.”

Much like former Republican Indiana superintendents Suellen Reed and Tony Bennett, McCormick has spent her career since leaving the classroom in school administration. She worked first as a teacher in Yorktown schools, then a principal, then assistant superintendent and, beginning in 2010, superintendent.

Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state. It also gets some of the state’s top results. Almost 97 percent of high school seniors graduated in 2015. And even when the ISTEP test became much more difficult in 2015 as compared to prior years, more than 60 percent of Yorktown students passed.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick helped the district become one of the first in the state to provide tablets and computers to every student. She also played a key role in making sure teachers were trained in how to effectively use the new technology in the classroom, Stroeh said.

“It’s interesting to watch her with the people who’ve been in education a long time who are now on-board through the training she provided,” Stroeh said. “That isn’t always easy to do.”

In more than a decade as an administrator, McCormick has helped steer Yorktown as it is has struggled to keep up with its growing population and aging facilities, Stroeh said.

“As a superintendent now under the school board, they’ve had to just change the pathway to be able to keep the schools up as best as they can,” Stroeh said. “(McCormick) has done a good job of using the money she has and being able to do what needs to be done.”

Simpson, who’s worked with McCormick since she was a teacher in the district, said her leadership and ability to collaborate made her a clear pick when the time came to hire a new superintendent in 2010. Her ability to analyze, communicate and lead will serve her well in a statewide position, he said.

“We knew we were extremely fortunate to have her and thought that bigger and better things were in the future,” Simpson said.

McCormick said she’s not worried about her relative lack of experience in state policy. She’s confident she can ramp up her knowledge and skills in time to make key policy decisions.

“Obviously at the local level that’s what I do as superintendent,” McCormick said. “I work closely with the school board to delve into policy.”

Read our profile on Glenda Ritz, who’s running for a second term as Indiana state superintendent.