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She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”

seizing the moment

On first day for most Denver schools, gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston calls for better school funding

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston's children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston sent his son Emmett back to school Monday — and sent a message to voters at the same time about one of his longtime causes.

On the first day of school for most Denver students, Johnston recorded a video of his son carting off two large cardboard boxes full of supplies. In the video posted to Twitter, the former state senator called it another example of how Colorado is shortchanging its public schools.  

“People often ask what does it mean to have cuts to the statewide budget to education,” he said.  “Well it means a lot of those bills get passed on to parents and to kids who have to bring their own paper towels, their own wipes, their own crayons, their own boxes.”

Johnston, a national figure in the education reform movement, led an unsuccessful push to increase taxes for schools in 2013.

“We count ourselves lucky,” Johnston said in the video, adding that knows many families in Denver often feel the pinch of buying new school supplies and fees. “We think the state has an obligation to do better.”

Though the governor’s race is in its early stages, back-to-school season is a logical time for candidates to take out education positions. Earlier Monday, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is also running, released an online ad spotlighting his pledge to expand full-day kindergarten and preschool.

sending a message

Memphis school board leader wants to declare that ‘all are welcome here’

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support an unsuccessful bill that would have extended in-state tuition to them.

A school board member wants Shelby County Schools to send a unified message to immigrant students and parents: “You are safe in our schools.”

Teresa Jones will ask the board Tuesday to officially go on the record about protections for undocumented students in the wake of this summer’s federal immigration arrests in Memphis by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“There are speculations among parents of, ‘Should I send my child to school?’” she said Monday about the impetus for her proposal. “I want the board to take a formal stand.” 

The resolution backs up the district’s current policy of protecting student privacy and restricting the release of confidential information about immigration status to immigration enforcement agencies.

It also asks the superintendent to elevate partnerships with community-based organizations aimed at supporting families impacted by immigration raids.

If the resolution is approved, Shelby County’s school board would join elected school officials across the nation who have spoken out about President Donald Trump’s crackdown on people who have entered the United States illegally. Last fall after Trump’s election, Nashville school board members took a similar stand.

Memphis school officials sought to assure parents of the district’s policy earlier this month when the new school year opened.

Shelby County is now home to approximately 57,000 Hispanics, and 14 percent of the district’s student population is Hispanic.

Teresa Jones

The resolution by Jones, who is an attorney, cites the 1982 Texas court case Plyler v. Doe, which established that a public school district cannot deny children access to education based on their immigration status.

She said a school board vote would send a strong message to Shelby County and across the nation.

“An individual speaking is just opinion,” Jones said. “But when we have a resolution, that speaks for the entire board. It’s a different level of … commitment to our students.”

Kevin Woods, another board member, said he’ll back the position wholeheartedly.

It makes “a statement loud and clear to families of our immigrant population that they are welcome at our schools, we want them there and they are members of our communities,” he said.