The stunning upset in Tuesday’s state superintendents race that put an end to Democrat Glenda Ritz’s tumultuous tenure as the state’s top education official has left many of her supporters fearing for the worst.
Some teachers — perhaps jokingly — took to social media to claim they would leave teaching now that teachers’ strongest defender in state government has been ousted. As the only Democrat elected to a statewide office, Ritz has often been a lone voice of dissent as the Republicans who led the rest of state government cut back on teacher benefits and pursued controversial education reforms such as the expansion of charter schools and of private school vouchers.
And once the new superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, takes over in January, all top state offices will be Republicans, and that voice seems likely to go quiet — or be heard only behind the scenes.
McCormick, the current superintendent of Yorktown schools, actually shares Ritz’s views on issues like increasing teacher pay and adjusting school funding so it’s more fair for poor children. But unlike Ritz, she’s not as likely to butt heads with her fellow Republicans.
She might speak up to defend teachers — and does differ from her Republican colleagues in some key ways — but McCormick will likely have an easier time than Ritz, a Democrat, working alongside the administration of Governor-elect Eric Holcomb and the Republicans who lead the state legislature based on what we know about their education priorities. This is particularly true when it comes to testing and preschool.
“(McCormick) and Eric will work well together,” said Betsy Wiley, CEO of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice and supported McCormick’s campaign. “She will work well with all constituencies.”
Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard optimism from his members about McCormick’s aim to have more frequent and direct communication between schools, districts and the Indiana Department of Education. That aspect of her campaign resonated with school leaders who hope the strategy will benefit schools, he said.
“Dr. McCormick’s message was being heard pretty well in the field — the idea of trying to streamline and make sure the communication was effective,” Bess said. “Her comments also about being able to work and build the relationships with the General Assembly, that’s certainly easier when you’re a Republican in a Republican majority.”
How McCormick’s approach to politics will differ from Ritz’s remains to be seen, but the two have many overlapping policy positions, especially when it comes to issues concerning the classroom. Both have spoken out against over-testing and have raised concerns about losing teachers to other professions.
“There were some thing that they both really have similar thoughts on,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “They’re both really concerned about testing and retention and compensation of teachers.”
The state superintendent doesn’t have the power to pass laws in Indiana but she oversees the state education department, which makes decisions over things like test development and on-the-ground school improvement strategies.
In the coming years, McCormick will likely have great influence over the state’s next steps as it continues its push to abolish the state’s unpopular ISTEP exam and replace it with something better.
While McCormick’s testing vision differs greatly from Ritz’s, this is one area where things will likely continue as they would have if Ritz had stayed in office because lawmakers — not superintendents — ultimately will decide what kind of test Indiana students should take.
McCormick and Ritz both agreed that the state’s current school grading system that slaps a single A-F grade on schools based largely on student test scores in overly simplistic, but McCormick’s supporters say that system is more likely to change under McCormick because GOP lawmakers might be more willing to collaborate with a fellow Republican on a different approach.
Advocates of traditional public schools might worry that another Republican leading the education department will open the door to more charter schools and vouchers.
But while McCormick welcomes school choice for Indiana families, she’s also a career public school educator who in Yorktown was charged with balancing a district’s budget. She certainly hasn’t convinced everyone she’s different from her Republican predecessor Tony Bennett, but she vowed on the campaign trail to oppose programs that would divert money from traditional public schools.
That’s a potential line in the sand with the Holcomb administration. The governor-elect has said he’s a strong supporter of school choice. He served as lieutenant governor to Gov. Mike Pence, who pushed harder and further for school choice than any governor in Indiana history.