Commentary: The Education Of Dr. Jennifer McCormick
By Mary Beth Schneider
INDIANAPOLIS – Jennifer McCormick will be Indiana’s last elected superintendent of public instruction – but that doesn’t mean her last election is behind her.
In an interview this week, McCormick said she isn’t taking anything off the table, including a run for governor.
“I don’t want to be governor today,” she said, emphasizing the word “today.” “But I would never rule anything out.”
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” she repeated when asked about that possibility. “It goes back to, for me, it’s not about a partisan decision. For me, it’s about serving the state and if I feel I have something to offer then I’m always keeping those avenues open.”
Speculation swirled earlier this summer when McCormick went on a statewide listening tour on education issues with Sen. Eddie Melton, a Gary Democrat who is exploring a run for governor. Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer fired off a statement accusing her of “auditioning for a new job” as Melton’s running mate and questioned whether she’s still a Republican.
“I don’t have to defend (myself) with anyone, certainly not the head of the party,” McCormick told me.
Besides, she added, “look at what’s happening at the federal level… I don’t even know what it really means at this point to be a Republican from what I’m watching. But I do know what it is to be an educator. I do know what it is to be an effective superintendent.”
McCormick won election as the state’s top education official in 2016 following four tumultuous years when Democrat Superintendent Glenda Ritz clashed with Republican Gov. Mike Pence.
McCormick’s win over Ritz would have seemed to usher in a less contentious era, but the ongoing education battles in the state showed the differences were more ideological than partisan. The players had changed, but the issues remained: how to test students, whether to use the results to grade schools and teachers, how much to pay teachers, how to fund schools, whether to continue to expand the use of public dollars to fund private schools through vouchers. And, most importantly, who should be in charge of governing education in Indiana.
During Ritz’s tenure, the superintendent already had been demoted from being chair of the State Board of Education. And in 2017 the legislature voted to make the superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position.
On Oct. 1, 2018, only 22 months after winning election, McCormick announced she would not seek a second term. That freed lawmakers to move up the timetable for an appointed superintendent to 2021.
In her announcement, McCormick said she came into office thinking the job was about doing “what’s best for kids… I was so cute. I was so naïve.”
What she got was an education in the political power struggles, both inside the Statehouse and in the big money lobby surrounding it, that have defined the education debates in Indiana for decades.
There are political lessons she wishes she could unlearn, she said, and things she wishes she could change but can’t—including that appointed superintendent, who isn’t even required to have a background in education. With the change, the governor will appoint both the superintendent and a majority of the State Board of Education.
“I just think it’s an enormous amount of power surrounding K-12 that one officeholder is going to hold,” McCormick said. “I just think having more of a voice of the people in our system somewhere, somehow, is healthy.”
As for the future of education policy, McCormick said: “We are who we vote for.”
Voters, she said, will need to keep education issues at the forefront when going to the polls in 2020. “I hope that the vote for the governor is a vote for the voice of education, because that’s where it’s going to fall,” she said.
Voters need to ask the gubernatorial candidates their plans to adequately fund K-12 education, their plans for pre-K and their plans to recruit and keep teachers. And, she added, they need to look at their records.
“Talk is cheap,” she said.
Asked if she was telling people to vote against Holcomb, McCormick said: “I’m saying they need to vote informed, so they need to ask the right questions.”
McCormick has spent her life in education—in the classroom, teaching special ed students and language arts; in school administration; as the Yorktown Community Schools superintendent. Politics “was not on my agenda,” she said.
Now, though, she could teach a course on political science.
“I would love to do that,” McCormick said with a smile. “Oh, what a class that would be!”
FOOTNOTE:Mary Beth Schneider is an editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalists.