When running for state superintendent in 2016, Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, told Education Week that if elected, she’d work to heal the sour relationship between the state’s department of education, the state board, the legislature, and the governor’s office.
The two prior state chiefs—Tony Bennett and Glenda Ritz—had rocky tenures, marred by disputes with other state officials over the role of charter schools, communication with districts, and the state’s accountability system, which eventually lost legitimacy with the public.
“To all the other elected and appointed officials, I promise to be a good partner to the state of Indiana so we can move forward,” McCormick said at her inauguration. “To Indiana schools, I am proud to be one of you and I look forward to working with you.”
Conflicts Over Governance
But earlier this month, after disputes with the state board over the state’s accountability system and other policies, McCormick said she won’t run again for state superintendent in 2020. She also resigned her position as the chair of the state board of education.
“My whole goal was to help kids, calm the field down, and provide guidance and resources that were lacking,” McCormick said in a recent interview. “The government structure in Indiana is quite difficult. It causes confusion and it stretches resources.”
Indiana is one of several states that’s grappling with how to best structure the system that oversees education policy. Since the passage of the federal, many states have either stripped state boards of their power or propped up state superintendents with more power.
Indiana decided last year to have its state chief be appointed rather than elected as early as 2025, though the legislature in recent months has gone back and forth over when to institute that change.
Unlike most states, Indiana’s state board of education has its own staff, complete with a spokesperson and director of accountability. That stems in part from partisan battles in the period of 2013 to 2017 between then-Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, and Ritz, a Democrat who was then superintendent, over who created and implemented state policy.
McCormick said in an interview that she and the board early on in her tenure had disagreements over what ESSA and the state’s laws required when it came to holding schools accountable. In the end, the state’s education department created an ESSA-compliant accountability system while the state board kept its prior accountability system with promises to work with the legislature to make changes to it in the coming years.
“We tried really hard to make it one system, but we’re philosophically a little different [from the state board],” McCormick said.
Katie Mote, a member of Indiana’s state board of education, in an interview this past summer agreed that there are philosophical differences in the goals of the two accountability systems.
“Our state’s accountability system is designed to assess school performance, and ESSA is designed to support students in order to direct federal dollars,” Mote said. “We believe it’s not possible to align those two separate philosophical purposes. It’s like apples and oranges.”
McCormick said the department and the board in recent weeks have disagreed over which underperforming schools should get extra federal money for improvement. Part of that, she said, is due to what she sees as mixed messages on compliance the state department and board are getting from the U.S. Department of Education.
When the signals are changing “literally on a monthly, weekly basis, it’s very difficult to implement ESSA to the extent we should,” McCormick said.
McCormick, the former district superintendent of Yorktown Community schools in Indiana, said the political battles over the state’s accountability system will ultimately hurt schools.
“There’s a balance in Indiana that’s especially tricky,” McCormick said. “My concern is that you have kids that are in the middle of that. I’m a mom and an educator. When it starts to impact the local classroom, there’s a problem.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as Lame-Duck Indiana Chief Voices Governance Frustrations