The ‘toxic’ politics behind McCormick’s decision to reject a second term as Indiana schools chief

Fireworks between former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and Republican politicians and policymakers happened frequently and publicly. For current state schools chief Jennifer McCormick, the clashes have apparently been mostly behind the scenes.

That’s why the announcement last week that McCormick, a Republican, would not seek a second term in office came as such a surprise. Although she campaigned on a promise to get along better with the governor and state education board than her predecessor, she blamed her decision not to run again on political squabbles. She said she’s “disheartened” by how politics and “behind-the-scenes” conversations have made it difficult to do her job of carrying out education policy.

“I knew the political environment was toxic between the (education department) and the governor’s office,” McCormick said in an interview with Chalkbeat, alluding to battles between Ritz and then-Gov. Mike Pence. “I thought there would be more of a willingness to address it, and do that in a manner that mirrored what I was used to in a professional, transparent, respectful manner.”

But McCormick’s splashy statements seem to have landed with a thud. The lawmakers that she was taking to task — as well as state board of education members and governor’s office staff from her own party — either won’t publicly discuss her criticism or claim they’re confused by it. And if, as she said, McCormick is stepping aside to have more of an effect on education policy, it’s unclear if calling out her fellow Republicans will make it harder for her to achieve that.

“I guess I’m a little puzzled,” said Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee and a Republican from Indianapolis. “It seems to me like we’ve really come together in the end and (reached) places where there’s lots of agreement.”

Byron Ernest, a state board of education member appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, also said his work with McCormick has been productive, and not “unhealthy” as McCormick had said in her bombshell announcement, which was followed two days later by her decision to remove herself from the running for leadership of the Indiana State Board of Education next year.

“For me personally, no, I’ve not had anything that was unhealthy or uncomfortable for me,” Ernest said.

In a state where the governor is a Republican, the legislature has a Republican supermajority, and the majority of voters frequently cast ballots for GOP candidates, many observers expected a Republican to find success as Indiana’s top education official. During her campaign, McCormick emphasized her skills as a leader and administrator, drawing a distinction from Ritz, who spent most of her career as a classroom educator. McCormick said when she was in charge of the department of education, she’d take the “politics out of it,” a nod to the frequent battles between Ritz, state board members, and Pence that led to policy stalemates.

Read: As election nears, Republican challenger looks to distance herself from Bennett and Ritz

McCormick’s Republican backers were optimistic she’d carry out Indiana education policy with more skill and aplomb as well. But even before she was elected, McCormick started differentiating her education policy philosophies from her fellow Republicans through her skepticism of diverting dollars from public schools and her calls for more accountability for charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Two years later, McCormick’s initial supporters have become less enthusiastic about her education positions, while Democrats and former Ritz supporters have considered her with fresh eyes.

McCormick said she never marketed herself as anything other than what she is — a public school educator focused on improving things for teachers and students. “From the beginning, even during the campaign, I made it clear that I knew it would take partnerships,” McCormick said. “I also didn’t try to hide who I was … I made it crystal clear that I believed in public education. I don’t know if people thought I was just kidding.”

Behning said he supported McCormick when she was nominated, and he’s appreciated the “diversity of opinion” she brings to policy discussions.

When asked about his work with McCormick, Behning said there have been areas where they started out on different sides but found common ground — he referenced plans for designing the next state tests and a recent effort to collapse Indiana’s four high school diplomas into one.

And in her interview with Chalkbeat, McCormick did praise work she’s done with the Senate Republican leadership, saying she’s been happy to have a seat at the table. She also said while she thinks a lot of good work has happened with her colleagues, particularly as it relates to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s education and workforce priorities, she hasn’t felt like she always had a voice with the governor or the House. Last week in her press conference, McCormick also mentioned difficulties working with committee chairmen.

The unique role occupied by Indiana’s state superintendent is another source of friction for McCormick — she must keep up with rules from the state and the federal government, essentially serving two masters.

The tension in balancing those roles is exacerbated by the split between the state board and education department, a move by Pence to strip power from Ritz. That division is at the heart of one of the most public areas of disagreement between McCormick and fellow policymakers: How to rewrite Indiana’s A-F grading system.

As head of the state education department, McCormick was charged with leading the development of a plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, new federal law that aims to make education more equitable among students from different backgrounds.

While initially the plan was expected replace the A-F grading model that debuted in 2016, the work was derailed because state laws conflict with the federal requirements. McCormick has been vocal about ensuring Indiana has a single, unified A-F grading system that meets both state and federal rules, which would require lawmakers to step in, but some board members said state law should always reign supreme. As a result, Indiana schools will now receive two grades, one following the state guidelines and one the federal, indefinitely.

Read: Indiana schools getting 2 state grades? Too confusing for parents and educators, experts say.

Molly Craft, spokeswoman for the state board, said Indiana’s decision to divide responsibilities between the board and the department does have consequences, but it doesn’t prevent policy decisions from moving forward.

“The General Assembly has assigned different responsibilities to the State Board of Education and the Department of Education,” Craft said in an email. “It’s natural to have tensions between policy and implementation. The Board and Department share a common goal of doing what is best for Indiana students.”

This arrangement could plague any future schools chief unless lawmakers move to knit them back together. Merging the state board and department could be easier once the governor has the power to appoint the state schools chief, currently set to happen in 2025. Although there are rumblings that lawmakers could introduce proposals in 2019 to move that date up to 2021.

Going forward, it’s still not clear how McCormick’s recent announcements will shake up education across the state or affect her remaining time in office.

For its part, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said Holcomb’s staff will continue to collaborate on important initiatives with the Department of Education, and that Holcomb meets regularly with McCormick and “values her input.”

On social media, though, some expressed sadness that the state could lose the leadership of a lifelong educator. Others were more cynical, saying this is business as usual in a state where education is often political. That sentiment was echoed in a recent letter to the editor in the Evansville Courier & Press from McCormick’s 2016 primary opponent, Dawn Wooten.

“We now have a lame duck in charge of education in Indiana — and that is frightening,” Wooten, a college professor from Fort Wayne, wrote. “People should be angry! I only hope that the Governor steps in and ensures the Department of Education does not fail in its duties.”

McCormick was unmoved by the critique. “I owe no one except for the students of Indiana,” McCormick said. “For two years and for the past two decades before that, I have proven my leadership skills and don’t need to belittle them by addressing such letters.”

Behning, too, said he thinks McCormick’s decision to leave her board leadership position impairs her ability to be effective and have a voice. “It’s disappointing that she’s decided to (leave) the state board as chair,” Behning said. “I think it limits her ability to be a strong advocate for kids.”

But McCormick says she is convinced the state board chair position doesn’t make much of an impact. “As far as the chair position, it’s irrelevant because of the lack of authority it has. It’s time consuming … my time can be spent elsewhere.”

She also cautioned state leaders to remember voters and, ultimately, the students and teachers who have to navigate the policy created by those at the top.

“The kids aren’t worried about Jennifer McCormick, they are worried about the opportunities they will have in the state of Indiana,” she said. “It’s got to be bigger than the people in the positions at the moment.”