Here’s where Indiana superintendent candidates stand on vouchers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that accepts taxpayer funded vouchers. All students at the private school must take Indiana's state tests. Whether Tennessee should have a similar requirement in its voucher proposal is up for debate.

The two women running for Indiana’s top education job differ on many policy issues, but one of the clearest differences between them is their positions on vouchers.

Current state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat up for re-election this fall, has vehemently opposed vouchers since she took office in 2012. Her challenger, Republican Jennifer McCormick, said she is supportive of them, but not looking to expand the program.

“I’ve been a huge proponent of parents being allowed that choice,” said McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown schools.

Indiana now has one of the largest voucher programs in the country with 32,686 kids across the state — nearly 3 percent of Indiana students — potentially getting thousands of dollars a year from taxpayers to spend on private school tuition.

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.

The Republican-led state legislature has expanded the program even further since the state’s voucher law first passed in 2011, opening up the program to more students and allowing them to apply for vouchers during both fall and spring semester, among other changes.

The state’s program is far more expansive than those in other states, which typically only apply to certain students, such as those with special needs or whose families meet a specific income threshold.

But some lawmakers want it to go even further and last year proposed creating “education savings accounts,” which would give parents broad discretion over how to spend their children’s state education dollars, even allowing them to spend public money on homeschooling or exam fees.

Ritz has been a consistent voice against such expansions. Although the superintendent has said she’s not looking to scale back the program that’s already in place, she’s said there’s no need to further tap public resources for private schools.

“We already have school choice in place, so those (existing vouchers) would remain to be in place as they are,” Ritz said earlier this year. “What I’m really talking about is let’s not expand how you get school choice.”

The superintendent has no direct power over whether vouchers expand, as evidenced by the fact that Ritz has not been able to stop recent expansions, but the state’s top schools official can play a role in influencing the debate.

If McCormick gets the job, vouchers might not have new advocate, but her opposition is decidedly less fierce.

Like Ritz, McCormick has spent her career working in the public schools, and she says she believes parents should be able to decide what kind of school their children attend. And that means both charter schools and vouchers.

“It’s important that parents know if another school was a better fit, so be it, I will help you find that,” McCormick said.

However, McCormick has also clarified her position, stating she’s not looking to expand the program or others that would divert money from public schools.

Vouchers have been a polarizing topic across the state, not just in the capitol.

Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization, said she’s looking for a candidate who supports vouchers and school choice, viewpoints that align with her organization’s.

“We obviously believe that a parent or family should be in control of that decision,” Wiley said. “The current administration has made it clear that they are not big fans … or at least skeptical of charter schools and vouchers and anything other than the traditional public school setting.”

But voucher critics are also numerous, including the state’s teachers unions and public school educators from across the state. They see vouchers as a way to siphon money away from public schools to support private schools. At a legislative hearing earlier this year on a voucher bill that eventually became law, multiple parents and educators stood up and said vouchers were a drain on public school resources.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, noted at the time that more than half of kids who use vouchers have never attended public schools — and never would have.

The program “is really not helping the kids that it was promised to help,” she said. “It was sold to the state that this was desperately needed to help these children in low performing schools … and it’s not actually saving taxpayers anything.”

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:


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.