If we could count on Jennifer McCormick occupying the top state schools post come January, it would be easier to accept the governor's “trust us” pledge to fully fund public schools – both those with students in classrooms and those where it is necessary to offer online-only instruction.
But the power play that made the state superintendent of public instruction a gubernatorial appointee goes into effect in 2021, and those responsible for it are now asking us to trust them on school funding. Without McCormick's fierce advocacy for public schools, any pledge to do no harm to schools and students should be regarded warily.
Events over the past 10 days have fueled school districts' financial concerns, beginning with a warning from Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray that schools not offering classroom instruction were subject to a 15% budget cut, per the current funding formula for virtual instruction. School leaders, some of whom have been forced to offer only online instruction because of their local health department's COVID-19 guidance, objected.
Gov. Eric Holcomb insisted Wednesday it was his intent to deliver full funding. But it's not his call unless he steps up with an executive order. It's in the hands of GOP legislative leaders, who say they agree but haven't committed to changing the law, which they would have to do in a special session or in January. By then, count on budget leaders insisting deep spending cuts are necessary because of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.
McCormick offered a pointed warning in a tweet posted Thursday.
“Appreciate the funding support, but... Ask your (superintendents): 1) What happens if legislators do not pass a fix? ... 2) Would it surprise you if legislators did not pass a fix (after election)? ... 3) Are you going to bargain at the table on a gamble?”
The state superintendent is not the first to suggest her Republican colleagues might be making election-year promises they will abandon after Nov. 3, but she's the only one with a Statehouse office and firsthand experience negotiating policy with them. Within months of taking office in 2017, she began challenging the administration and speaking up on behalf of public schools. Holcomb supported the legislation to eliminate her elected office.
The next governor will appoint the next education chief. Both Holcomb and his Democratic challenger, Dr. Woody Myers, should be prepared to tell voters whom they will tap for the job. When Hoosier voters had a voice, they repeatedly chose educators with strong local school district experience, not education policy advisers. They rejected candidates – and an incumbent – whose loyalty did not appear to lie with public schools.
In her remaining months in office, McCormick isn't backing down. In an interview last week with NPR radio, she said Indiana schools face a triple threat: efforts to withhold state money, federal money and now career/tech dollars lost unless buildings are open for in-person instruction.
“It's one thing to say we're supporting state funding, but we need action. We either have to have an executive order or (the governor) has to call a special session,” she said. “If not, you are cutting 15% of our funds. From the feds, it is very, very frustrating.”
The stakes are high for educators and for families making school decisions this month. But they also are high for Indiana voters weighing promises for support for schools beyond Election Day. The decision would be easier if we knew McCormick would be at the Statehouse in January, still speaking truth to power.