Future of Schools

Skeptical at first, these Ritz supporters are now optimistic about McCormick

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat

Jennifer McCormick’s campaign for state superintendent last year left many voters wondering what side of the education reform debate she was on.

Supporters rallied around the Yorktown Republican for her experiences as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent. And while she raised an impressive sum of money from donors who had previously backed the choice-based reform star Tony Bennett, she maintained she wasn’t Bennett 2.0.

Her critics — often Democrats — weren’t so easily convinced, particularly given those deep-pocketed contributors, which included Hoosiers for Quality Education (the political arm of the school-choice advocacy group Institute for Quality Education) and Christel DeHaan, the founder of the network of Christel House charter schools.

But now, almost a year after she beat Glenda Ritz in an election night upset, some of those Ritz supporters who were skeptical have changed their tune. Maybe she’s not so bad after all, they said.

In her policies and recent comments since taking office, McCormick has just as often clashed with her Republican colleagues and pro-school-choice funders as she has been aligned with them. Yet even during the election, there were few policy areas where McCormick and Ritz had major departures.

That became especially clear at an event hosted by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education last month, where McCormick voiced her support for increased transparency and accountability for charter schools and private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers.

MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis attorney who has been skeptical of choice-based school reform efforts, said while she thought McCormick was qualified for the position, she was initially quite worried about the influence of those who financed her campaign.

“My fear did not come from anything that I specifically knew about her,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “My fear came from which organizations or individuals were providing much of her campaign financing. Unfortunately we’ve learned in Indiana over the last several years that money does seem to be talking very loudly.”

Over time, and after listening to her testify before the Senate Education Committee on testing, Schlegel Ruegger said she was pleased that McCormick seemed to distance herself from the views of her contributors, especially at the recent ICPE event. Schlegel Ruegger is a member of the group.

“I’m eager to see what else she may say” about charter and voucher transparency, Schlegel Ruegger said. “I’m interested to hear her say things like that in front of audiences who aren’t as eager to hear it as the audience Saturday.”

Kristina Frey, a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network and also an ICPE member, said she thinks she was wrong to jump to conclusions so early. Frey said Washington Township came out strongly for Ritz, as the district where she was an educator, and she appreciated McCormick’s willingness to come out and meet parents in her district, even if they might be skeptical.

“I was wrong in my fears,” Frey said. “I have a lot of respect for Jennifer based on what I’ve seen so far. I think it took real guts to actually stand up in front of the General Assembly and have her say things that are contrary to what the leadership of the party believes.”

Both women said they hope McCormick can take a less passive approach with the legislature this session. Compared to her predecessors, McCormick’s administration was much more quiet during last year’s session, testifying far less on bills and declining to share a legislative agenda.

“I’d love to see her be — I think what schools call it is be much more of a ‘critical friend’ with the legislature,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “She is at a very interesting vantage point — between the views of her funders and her own experiences as a superintendent in public schools. And I would love to see her use that vantage point to critically look at legislation that comes through.”

Frey pointed out, however, that the power of the state’s schools chief is limited. That will be particularly true come 2025, when the governor will make the elected position an appointed member of his cabinet. Lawmakers voted to make the change this past year.

“Just like with Glenda Ritz we learned that the superintendent of public instruction has a limited role in actually setting policy, so though I am very happy with some of her public stances, I still believe that it will be very difficult for her to really do much to impact those things,” Frey said.

It’s unclear whether voters’ perception of McCormick will carry over to the legislature. McCormick opted to mostly promote the few education policies Gov. Eric Holcomb backed this year, but since then, her comments around supporting full-day kindergarten and school choice are largely at odds with what Republican education power players have typically supported.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, was vague about the extent to which that tension has entered into work between the General Assembly and the education department.

“Nobody is going to always agree on everything,” Behning said. “There are differences, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get along.”

Callie Marksbury, a Lafayette teacher and a former treasurer for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes there aren’t as many roadblocks thrown up at McCormick as there were for Ritz in terms of impact on state policy. During the election, the state’s teachers unions primarily backed Ritz.

“Please let the legislature leave her alone,” Marksbury said. “Let her do what she said she’s going to do.”

Current law says Indiana would appoint its schools chief in 2025. This story has been corrected to reflect that. 

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.