State officials love to point out more than half of the state's budget is dedicated to education. It's the go-to response when confronted with data on lagging teacher salaries or growing inequity among Indiana school districts.
But while many like to talk about how much schools cost, they are much less forthcoming when it comes to disclosing views on how those dollars are spent or who benefits. For Gov. Eric Holcomb, a key player in removing the state's top education post from voter ballots, that extends to revealing whom he would appoint to the new cabinet-level position replacing it.
Having lost the right to elect a state superintendent of public instruction, voters deserve to know whom the governor will choose.
If Democratic challenger Dr. Woody Myers is elected, voters know exactly what to expect. Myers announced during Tuesday's gubernatorial debate he will appoint Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick to the new education post. On Thursday, Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater said he would appoint Dawn Wooten, a Fort Wayne resident and adjunct English instructor who lost the nomination for state schools chief at the GOP state convention in 2016.
Holcomb has said only that he will appoint someone “that doesn't need on-the-job training,” someone who's “creative, innovative and is thinking about education in a holistic sense ... meaning all the above: K-12, charters, choice, home schooling, higher education, career training, etc.”
“I think a candidate who identifies key members of an administration is helping voters see how that candidate will run things,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue Fort Wayne. “Naming key members of an administration could help a campaign if that person has a good reputation.”
It undoubtedly helped Mitch Daniels in 2004, when he announced he would name Fort Wayne business leader Pat Miller as Indiana's first secretary of commerce. After he was elected, Gov. Daniels issued an executive order to create the position, which was later codified in law by the General Assembly. Miller held the post for one year before returning to Vera Bradley, the company she co-founded.
Voters might not know the identity of Holcomb's education pick, but they should know the appointee will not share McCormick's views on public education. The governor and state superintendent, elected as part of the same Republican ticket, have had a strained relationship. Holcomb has been a reliable supporter of voucher and charter school programs; McCormick is a vocal critic of a school choice program that diverts millions of dollars from public schools each year.
“The rhetoric we're hearing already – 'teachers aren't highly effective and they aren't being evaluated correctly. It's the same rhetoric from 2010,' ” McCormick said in a recent online discussion with public education supporters. “It's just setting the urgency to say 'public school is so bad, teachers are so bad, that we have to expand choice.' ”
Taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion on private and parochial schools since the voucher program began nine years ago. Last year, 7% of voucher families had household income in excess of $100,000. Federal authorities continue to investigate a virtual charter school scandal that likely involved more than $85 million in misspent funds.
McCormick also has warned of efforts to consolidate the Department of Education with workforce development and higher education.
“I think the State Board (of Education) will be brought under that umbrella. I think you'll have a lot of consolidation,” she said. “I just hope the spirit of K-12 isn't gobbled up in that.”
Tough decisions await as a result of state revenue reduced by the pandemic's effects. Unfortunately, those same effects eliminated a vigorous campaign debate just as Indiana is set to make a major change in the structure of education governance. Without that debate, and without knowing who might speak and work on behalf of Indiana's 2,000-plus public schools and 1.1 million students, voters might be surprised to find just how extensive the change will be.