Testing Wars and the Educational Whack-a-Mole Facing Indiana’s Next State Schools Chief

The 74’s Carolyn Phenicie examines local and state level elections where education will play a critical role this November.
Attention turns to Indiana Tuesday where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will work to lock up their party's nomination for president while Sen. Ted Cruz tries to wrest last-minute mileage from Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s Friday endorsement.
But underneath all of that bluster about ISIS, taxes, and guns is a campaign that, come fall, will have an even greater impact on Hoosier children: Indiana voters, like those in Washington and about a dozen other states, will elect their top school official.
The race for superintendent of public instruction pits incumbent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, against probable Republican challenger Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of the Yorktown Community Schools. Dawn Wooten, an adjunct college professor, is also seeking the Republican nomination but has yet to officially file with the party.
There will be plenty of issues at play in the race, not the least of which is an ongoing, years-long battle over the state’s educational standards and accompanying standardized tests.
Three years of change has left districts, schools and educators scrambling, said Chad Lochmiller, an assistant professor of education leadership and policy studies at Indiana University.
“Right now, the best way I can describe it is that the state has been functioning in a constant state of Whack-a-Mole in terms of its education policymaking,” Lochmiller said. “It’s creating a lot of disequilibrium.”
Pence first ordered the state to back out of the Common Core-aligned PARCC testing consortia in 2013, and then signed a law dropping the Common Core State Standards in August 2014, making Indiana the first state to do so. The state quickly wrote new standards and a new test aligned to those standards, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress – Plus, better known as ISTEP.
The new tests were a mess from the start, plagued with a raft of scoring delays and outright errors.
(The 74: How a Months-Long Delay on Test Scores Could Be the Final Blow for Indiana’s ISTEP Test)
Faced with criticism from all corners of the education world, the state legislature first decided not to tie the scores to school accountability standards, and then passed a bill to scrap ISTEP and create a panel to write a new test that would begin in the 2017-18 school year.
What should be a sleepy bureaucratic exercise, though, has taken a sharp political turn, like much of education policy in the Hoosier state.
Board members tasked with rewriting the standards will be appointed by the governor, president pro tempore of the state Senate and speaker of the state House — all Republicans — and the superintendent of public instruction, currently Ritz, the sole Democrat. And Ritz has already made hay out of her being a member of the panel but not its chair, The Indianapolis Star reported.
The governor, who Ritz briefly ran against last year and with whom she has feuded for the past four, will select the panel’s leader.
Board appointees do have to include parents, educators, principals and others familiar with state tests, but the concern that the process will become politicized “is a valid one,” said Betsy Wiley, president of Hoosiers for Quality Education. The group, which advocates for school choice in Indiana, has a related political action committee that has donated to McCormick, the Republican challenger.
Underlying the latest tension over how the state test will be crafted is the near-constant power struggle between Ritz and Pence.
The two have sparred through the state board of education: the governor appoints the members, but the state superintendent is the chairperson. Pence signed a bill last year, over Ritz’s objections, ending the automatic appointment of the superintendent as chairperson after 2016. Ritz’s status as chair allowed her to add items to the board’s agenda or deny motions she opposed, Chalkbeat Indiana reported.
Ongoing fights about which entity is in charge of educational standards — the state board controlled by Pence or the education department, which is under Ritz — will only become more important as Indiana takes a greater role in accountability and school turnaround under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new K-12 federal education law.
“With the stakes higher, you’ll probably see more of that [fighting] if there’s that division between whoever occupies the governor’s chair and whoever occupies the superintendent’s chair,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of public affairs at Indiana University. “This is the problem of independently elected superintendents.”
Ritz serves a four-year term and is paid $92,503 a year.
There’s also been discord between Ritz and the legislature, where Republican lawmakers’ pro-school choice agenda hasn’t often lined up with Ritz’s more teacher-union-friendly policies, Lochmiller said.
“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 work with the legislature to find a compromise between “what’s practically feasible” and “what’s politically desirable,” he added.
In addition to the fights over standards, assessments, and new policies made necessary under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the next superintendent will likely have to deal with disputes over how to attract more teachers to the state.
(The 74: Why Some Indiana Lawmakers Want to Bypass Teachers Unions to Pay Educators More Money)
Hoosier leaders will also have to decide whether and how to expand the state’s already robust school voucher program, which funds either 50 or 90 percent of private school tuition, depending on family income. Children from families making under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, close to $90,000 for a family of four, are eligible. About 32,000 students use the program, and the state legislature has put $50 million toward it for the next two years, according to State Impact Indiana.
The Contenders
Ritz is well known to those in the education world, but only recently.
Her 2012 election (in which she earned more votes than the Democrats running for governor and U.S. Senate) was an upset, and catapulted her from school librarian to one of the state’s most recognized politicians.
She touts a raft of accomplishments on her campaign website, including preventing schools, teachers and communities from being penalized for poor ISTEP scores, advocating for the end of the ISTEP test, expanding pre-K programs, and providing direct services to schools through the creation of nine new department outreach coordinators.
Ritz has a huge financial advantage — over $350,000 in her campaign fund as of March 31, according to state records. That’s more than 10 times the amount collected by McCormick, the mainstream GOP challenger.
At least some of what fueled Ritz’s surprise 2012 victory over incumbent Tony Bennett — widespread resistance to Common Core, and parents’ and conservatives’ opposition to Bennett’s positions favoring vouchers, the tougher academic standards, and A to F school ratings — are no longer a concern, Lenkowsky said.
If Ritz faces off against a more traditional school figure who hasn’t created problems with conservatives in the state, she’s in for a “very tough race,” he said.
Lochmiller agreed that the race is likely to be tight, and predicted it would be closer than the 2012 contest. Ritz won that one by about 142,000 votes, or 5 percent of the total cast.
McCormick, whose district is in suburban Muncie, lists her “non-negotiables” as “leadership and vision” and a strong “partnership” with the state education department. She’ll also “provide districts with quality tools to enhance instruction and support teachers,” “develop a credible statewide assessment system” and “put students before politics.”
Wooten’s campaign, meanwhile, is largely focused on “stopping the Common Core influence.”
Her most unique platform plank deals with discipline — too many teachers and administrators, she argues on her website, are afraid to discipline children for fear of being accused of racism or religious intolerance and running afoul of federal civil rights laws.
She proposes passing a new law to protect them from such litigation, and wants to add video recording devices to every classroom to protect teachers from “false allegations.”
Her candidacy has not drawn much attention in the months since she formally announced. As of April 25, she hadn’t yet raised enough to fund the $9,225 party filing fee, according to her website.
The state Republican committee in June will select a candidate to challenge Ritz in the general election.
The Whole Ticket
Movement among candidates for the other statewide offices could have an effect on the superintendent’s race, Lenkowsky said.
Pence’s political star fell dramatically last year after he signed a “religious freedom” law that many saw as condoning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Leaders of the state’s largest businesses balked at what they viewed as discrimination, and conventions pulled out of the state. (Pence later signed an amendment that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; some business leaders said only a full repeal was acceptable.)
The governor announced in mid-February that he was replacing his lieutenant governor with a former state party chairman and congressional staffer, a move that helps him repair ties with business-aligned and socially moderate Republicans, groups often linked to the GOP establishment.
Pence “was on very shaky ground with the traditional middle of the road, business folks,” Lenkowsky said.
Candidates for higher office often impact those in their party running “down ballot” (think Donald Trump’s potential negative effect on Republicans vying for U.S. Senate seats) so Pence’s rising tide could help McCormack’s bid to unseat Ritz.
“If (Pence is) successful, he’ll greatly strengthen his standing on the ballot, and that will probably have implications for the superintendent of education race,” Lenkowsky said.
Pence’s approval rating among Hoosiers dropped dramatically in the wake of the religious freedom bill fight. A late April poll found Pence leading Democratic challenger John Gregg, 49 percent to 45 percent, within the poll’s 4.3 percent margin of error.

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