Testing Wars and the Educational Whack-a-Mole Facing Indiana’s Next State Schools Chief
Carolyn Phenicie from takes a closer look at the upcoming local and state level elections in November, where education will play a crucial role.
Although all attention is currently focused on Indiana, where Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz are vying for their party’s nominations for president, there is an underlying campaign that will have a significant impact on the education of children in the state. Indiana, along with several other states including Washington, will be electing their top school official.
The race for superintendent of public instruction in Indiana is between Glenda Ritz, the incumbent Democrat, and Jennifer McCormick, the probable Republican challenger who is currently the superintendent of the Yorktown Community Schools. Dawn Wooten, an adjunct college professor, is also seeking the Republican nomination but has not officially filed with the party yet.
There are several key issues at stake in this race, one of which is the ongoing battle over the state’s educational standards and standardized tests. Numerous changes over the past three years have caused confusion and chaos among districts, schools, and educators in Indiana. Chad Lochmiller, an assistant professor of education leadership and policy studies at Indiana University, describes it as a constant state of Whack-a-Mole in terms of education policymaking, creating a lot of disequilibrium.
In 2013, Indiana withdrew from the Common Core-aligned PARCC testing consortia and in August 2014, the Common Core State Standards were dropped, making Indiana the first state to do so. New standards were quickly implemented along with a new test called ISTEP, but it was plagued with scoring delays and errors from the start.
Facing criticism from the education community, the state legislature initially decided not to tie the scores to school accountability standards, and then passed a bill to replace ISTEP with a new test starting in the 2017-18 school year.
This bureaucratic exercise has now turned into a political battleground. Board members appointed to rewrite the standards will be chosen by Republicans, including the governor, president pro tempore of the state Senate, speaker of the state House, and the superintendent of public instruction. Ritz, the sole Democrat on the panel, has raised concerns about being a member but not the chairperson.
The ongoing power struggle between Ritz and Pence is also underlying the tension over the crafting of the state test. Ritz, as the current superintendent, has clashed with Pence through the state board of education. Pence signed a bill last year, against Ritz’s objections, that ended the automatic appointment of the superintendent as chairperson after 2016. This move limited Ritz’s power to add items to the board’s agenda or deny motions she opposed.
The debate about who has authority over educational standards, whether it be the state board controlled by Pence or the education department led by Ritz, will become more important as Indiana takes on a larger role in accountability and school turnaround under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
With higher stakes involved, the division between the governor and the superintendent may lead to more conflicts in the future. This issue arises from the fact that superintendents are independently elected, serving a four-year term like Ritz, who earns a salary of $92,503 per year.
"Whether that would improve with a new superintendent, I’m not sure," he said. It will depend on the next school chief’s ability to collaborate with the legislature to find a middle ground between "what is realistically achievable" and "what is politically desirable," he added.
In addition to the conflicts surrounding standards, assessments, and new policies required under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the upcoming superintendent will likely have to deal with disagreements on how to attract more teachers to the state.
Hoosier leaders will also have to determine whether and how to expand the state’s already thriving school voucher program, which provides either 50 or 90 percent of private school tuition depending on family income. Children from families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, approximately $90,000 for a family of four, are eligible. About 32,000 students utilize the program, and the state legislature has allocated $50 million towards it for the next two years, according to State Impact Indiana.
Ritz is well recognized in the education sphere, but only recently.
Her surprise victory in the 2012 election (where she received more votes than the Democrats running for governor and U.S. Senate) propelled her from being a school librarian to one of the most prominent politicians in the state.
She highlights a variety of achievements on her campaign website, including preventing schools, teachers, and communities from facing penalties due to poor ISTEP scores, advocating for an end to the ISTEP test, expanding pre-K programs, and providing direct services to schools through the establishment of nine new department outreach coordinators.
Ritz has a significant financial advantage – her campaign fund had over $350,000 as of March 31, according to state records. This amount is over ten times the funds collected by McCormick, the primary GOP challenger.
Lenkowsky noted that some of the factors that contributed to Ritz’s surprise victory in 2012 – widespread opposition to Common Core and disagreement with Bennett’s support for vouchers, tougher academic standards, and A to F school ratings – are no longer significant concerns.
Lenkowsky stated that if Ritz goes up against a more traditional educational figure who hasn’t faced resistance from conservatives in the state, she will face a tough race.
Lochmiller agreed that the race is likely to be closely contested and predicted that it will be even closer than the 2012 contest. Ritz won that election by approximately 142,000 votes, or 5 percent of the total ballots cast.
McCormick, whose district is in suburban Muncie, emphasizes "leadership and vision" and a strong partnership with the state education department as her non-negotiables. She also aims to provide districts with quality tools to enhance instruction and support teachers, develop a credible statewide assessment system, and prioritize students over politics.
Wooten’s campaign, on the other hand, primarily focuses on stopping the influence of Common Core.
Her most distinctive platform plank concerns discipline – she argues that many teachers and administrators are hesitant to discipline students due to fears of being accused of racism or religious intolerance and violating federal civil rights laws.
She proposes enacting a new law to protect educators from such lawsuits and suggests installing video recording devices in every classroom to safeguard teachers from false allegations.
Since formally announcing her candidacy, Wooten has not garnered much attention. As of April 25, she had not yet raised enough funds to cover the $9,225 party filing fee, according to her website.
The state Republican committee will select a candidate to challenge Ritz in the general election in June.
The Entire Race
According to Lenkowsky, movements among candidates for other statewide offices could have an impact on the superintendent’s race.
Pence’s political standing took a major hit last year after signing a "religious freedom" law that was seen by many as condoning discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. The state’s largest businesses opposed what they viewed as discriminatory legislation, and several conventions withdrew from the state. (Pence later signed an amendment prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, although some business leaders argued that a complete repeal was necessary.)
In mid-February, the governor announced that he was replacing his lieutenant governor with a former state party chairman and congressional staffer. This move helps him rebuild connections with business-aligned and socially moderate Republicans, two groups often associated with the GOP establishment.
According to Lenkowsky, Pence had lost the support of the moderate business community and was in a vulnerable position.
When candidates running for higher office have an impact on others within their party who are running for lower level positions (like how Donald Trump’s actions may negatively affect Republicans running for U.S. Senate seats), Pence’s increasing popularity could benefit McCormack’s campaign to oust Ritz.
Lenkowsky suggests that if Pence is successful, it will significantly improve his chances in the election and this could potentially affect the superintendent of education race.
After the controversy surrounding the religious freedom bill, Pence’s approval rating among Indiana residents dropped significantly. In a poll conducted in late April, Pence was leading his Democratic opponent John Gregg by a narrow margin of 49 percent to 45 percent, with a 4.3 percent margin of error.