The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, August 29, 2017 1:00 am


The big picture

Leaders past, present talk school policy

State schools chief Jennifer McCormick has less than eight months on the job, but it's enough time to frame sound advice for supporters of public education: “We've got to get smarter with our messages; we've got to be clear; we've got to be professional. We've got to be collective, and we've got to go after some of those big notions that we all can get behind.” 

In a panel discussion with two of her three predecessors Saturday, the Republican superintendent also identified some of those big notions, beginning with more transparency and accountability for voucher and charter programs. She also said the Department of Education will seek mandatory kindergarten for Indiana children.

McCormick, along with Republican Suellen Reed and Democrat Glenda Ritz, spoke to members of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education at theH. Dean Evans Community and Education Center in Indianapolis. Tony Bennett, who served a single term between Reed and Ritz, was invited but did not respond, according to an ICPE official.

The three state officials, with a combined tenure of nearly 21 years, offered insight into the politics and policies shaping Indiana schools, with surprisingly little disagreement over effects.

“The assessments, in the beginning, were set up to find the kids who weren't where they were supposed to be and to get them help,” Reed said of the state's standardized testing system. “It was not designed to rank schools. It was not designed to see how well teachers were doing. ... If we want to assess schools, then we need an instrument that does that. If we want to assess teachers, we need an instrument that does that.”

Now a board member for the coalition, the four-term superintendent said Indiana is “testing our children to death, and we are spending a fortune.”

McCormick's strongest remarks were reserved for the unequal playing field between traditional public schools and charter and voucher schools, acknowledging her department is fielding calls from national media outlets. Indiana has the largest voucher program in the nation, and its growth accelerated under Gov. Mike Pence, whose influence as vice president suggests anationwide push for school choice. 

McCormick reminded the audience of mostly educators that both the General Assembly and Gov. Eric Holcomb support school choice.

“Our argument is: Shouldn't it be quality choice?” she asked. “Indiana is pretty much into the free-market choice for the sake of choice. ... We're pushing back to say, 'You know, you all have choice in restaurants, but you know that the Department of Health has been in and their food is stored properly; that it's clean – all of those baseline expectations.' Indiana is not doing that with all of our choice (schools). ... It shouldn't be a free-for-all.”

She went on to criticize the oversight of some universities serving as authorizers for “some really low-performing charters.”

“Where is the accountability for that?” McCormick asked.

But she wisely warned that school choice is here to stay in the current political environment, suggesting public education supporters must “be smarter with what we are asking.” 

“I've been very open, and it doesn't always go well with our General Assembly – sometimes it does, but more times it doesn't,” McCormick said, “If anyone is going to take public dollars, I think they should be under the same scrutiny that we all are. ... It should be transparent. You all should know where the money is going. Why should that be different for anyone who is taking public dollars?”

Ritz, whose four years were marked by continual battles with Pence and the Republican-controlled legislature, advised advocates to make sure their voices are loud and clear.

“We have to make sure we're all in this together,” she said.

The coming session is the best opportunity to follow the school leaders' advice. Putting aside battles over testing, school letter grades and more, public education advocates can be most effective in calling for accountability and transparency in Indiana's wide-open school choice program. Parents can choose which school their child attends, but shouldn't the state insist the choices available are good ones?

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