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  • State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, speaks at Monday's town hall at Fort Wayne Education Association office. (Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019 1:00 am

Democrat, schools chief in city to talk education

McCormick says it's become big business

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

A Democratic state lawmaker said Monday that Indiana education policy is driven by special interests that have found favor with supermajority Republicans at the Statehouse – a view shared by the Republican superintendent of public instruction.

“There are a lot of folks that are in that Statehouse every single day that are pushing certain educational policies,” Sen. Eddie Melton said about school choice advocates who have successfully lobbied for vouchers, charter schools, virtual schools and school privatization efforts.

“There's a lot of momentum right now. A lot of folks are making money, and if the community doesn't push back, I think it's going to continue to take place,” said Melton, a Gary resident who is considering seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 2020.

Jennifer McCormick, the state schools chief, said she agreed with Melton during their joint appearance in Fort Wayne.

“You've got a lot of money on the line” in education funding, McCormick said. “You've got a lot of lobbyists and a lot of people who are making a lot of money. I mean, it's a big business.

“I would argue in Indiana it's kind of the Wild, Wild West of choice,” she said. “In other states, there's more parameters around it, there's more quality controls around it. And we've tried to push that.”

McCormick joined Melton for his latest installment of Hoosier Community Conversations, a series of 16 town halls around the state. Melton is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

They fielded questions from more than 50 people gathered at the Fort Wayne Education Association office along Coliseum Boulevard near Hobson Road.

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer has denounced McCormick for participating in Melton's forums, saying in a July 1 statement that her involvement “begs the question whether Jennifer McCormick is still a Republican.” Hupfer also contended that McCormick “is auditioning” to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor next year.

McCormick said she agreed to appear at Melton's forums for a simple reason: “He asked.” She added: “For me, from the beginning, education is not about a political party, it's not about a politician. ... Education has to be about kids.”

McCormick, a school district superintendent in Delaware County before winning statewide election in 2016, complained that education “practitioners” are often ignored by government policymakers.

She, Melton and audience members discussed what they seemed to collectively regard as Indiana's education lapses, including a teacher shortage, low pay for teachers, state funding disparities among schools, the state's overemphasis on standardized testing and the redistribution of public school money among charter schools and vouchers that can be used at private schools.

“But my colleagues will say that we are funding education at an all-time record high,” Melton said, an apparent reference to Republican lawmakers. “How can you do that when we have stripped education constantly, public education, and redirected dollars to non-traditional formats?”

House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, told Melton and McCormick that teachers in northeast Indiana “are really getting tired. I could list a whole bunch of things.”

McCormick said later she wants government leaders to show greater respect for educators.

“I watch it, because I follow governors, I follow state leaders, I watch what they're saying. You change that rhetoric for free, and you change a lot of the culture around how parents react and how students react and around how lawmakers react,” she said.

“That is 100% about your leaders, your state leaders. That rhetoric has got to change back to a rhetoric of respect for an educator,” McCormick said.

Melton said he would take audience concerns “back to the Statehouse one way or another” – either as a legislator or governor. He distributed ballot petitions for registered voters to sign should he run for governor.

Woody Myers, a former state health commissioner, has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor, and state Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, is considering running.

First-term Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb announced his reelection bid Saturday.

McCormick announced in October that she would not seek reelection to a second term in 2020. This year, the General Assembly approved legislation that will have the governor appoint public instruction superintendents beginning in 2021, four years earlier than originally planned.

bfrancisco@jg.net