Election 2016

Superintendents race could have ‘huge impact’ on testing, preschools and the future of Indiana education

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of major U.S. and statewide elections, but education advocates urge Indiana voters not to overlook this year’s race for state superintendent.

While in most states the education chief traditionally works mostly behind the scenes, Indiana’s state superintendent is front and center, particularly when it comes to high-profile issues like standardized testing, school funding and whether to expand or overhaul the state’s preschool pilot. They’re all issues that could alter the way the state’s roughly 1 million children are educated.

There’s a lot stake, said Justin Ohlemiller, the executive director of Indiana Stand for Children.

“Voters should take the time to prioritize the state superintendent’s race,” Ohlemiller said. “What we do in education today will absolutely 100 percent shape the kind of city and state we are for the remaining part of this generation and generations to come.”

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

The battle pits incumbent Glenda Ritz, the only Indiana Democrat currently holding statewide office, against a Republican challenger with ties to the education-reform effort in Indianapolis.

Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of the Yorktown school district near Muncie, has taken issue with how Ritz has run the department of education, and has repeatedly said the state needs a stronger, more organized and communicative leader.

McCormick has said her education department would be more open to school reforms that give parents additional choices about where to send their kids to school such as vouchers and charter schools, while Ritz has fiercely advocated for initiatives that strengthen traditional public schools and prevent funding from leaving public school districts.

The two might also have different visions for what kinds of standardized tests Indiana students should be taking — an important distinction as a committee of educators and lawmakers considers a new testing program to replace ISTEP by 2018. The committee could also make adjustments to way the schools are evaluated and held accountable for student performance.

Both candidates have spent their careers in public education — Ritz as a school librarian, teacher and union leader in Washington Township and McCormick as a teacher, principal and district leader.

But politically, they approach education very differently.

Ritz, a longtime friend to the state’s teachers unions, has been critical during her time as schools chief of charter schools and of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Those viewpoints helped inspire the rank-and-file educators who fueled her surprise upset victory over incumbent Republican Tony Bennett in 2012.

Bennett had been lauded in education reform circles for the changes he helped usher into the state in 2011 under then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, including restrictions on collective bargaining for educators and a new model for teacher evaluations.

But as she runs for re-election, it’s not clear whether Ritz will have the same broad appeal this time around. Her administration has overseen a rocky period in Indiana education in which changing academic standards mandated by state lawmakers have left many educators and parents unsettled.

Last year’s ISTEP exam was riddled with technical glitches and scoring problems that some say Ritz should have been able to prevent. But her supporters say the education department did it’s job working with test companies and that technical issues can affect any state no matter who is in charge.

To win again this year, Ritz will also have to overcome bad publicity from political spats with state Republican leaders and and from possible errors in how federal poverty funds were distributed to schools this past year.

Rlitz has had some high profile successes including championing a “hold harmless” provision that protected schools from serious consequences after higher state standards led to a dramatic drop in student scores on the 2015 ISTEP test. But upheaval in the race for governor could force Ritz to quickly rethink her campaign strategy.

Now that Gov. Mike Pence has joined Donald Trump’s campaign as his presidential running mate, taking him off the state ballot in November, Ritz can no longer score political points by lobbing criticisms at her longstanding political foe.

Her only political foil is McCormick, who is fairly new to Hoosiers and therefore harder to attack.

McCormick has so far won support from reform-minded advocates, but her challenge will be making herself better known in education circles to overcome Ritz’s popularity with teachers.

The elected state superintendent works in concert with the Indiana General Assembly, the governor’s office and the Indiana State Board of Education, but ultimately, the winner is the main figure who implements education policy in the state.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the race is something voters should be watching closely.

“It seems like this year especially, every race has the potential for huge impact in terms of the future of education of kids in Indiana,” she said.

Indiana 2016 Election

The biggest donation in the IPS school board race came from an unexpected source

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In the battle for control of the Indianapolis Public School board, the largest single campaign contribution came from an unexpected source: the teachers’ union. But the donation didn’t help the union-backed candidate.

In recent years, IPS board races have been dominated by pro-school reform candidates who have attracted large contributions from deep-pocketed donors. But in other elections — at other times, in other places — it’s common for teachers’ unions to spend big.

That’s what happened this time in Indianapolis.

Critics of the current administration made their first organized bid to unseat incumbent board members in 2016 when they formed the group OurIPS. The group didn’t donate to candidates, but the district-wide candidate the group supported, Jim Grim, did win a $15,000 contribution from the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Despite that cash, all four candidates backed by OurIPS lost on Election Day.

The contribution to Grim’s campaign was revealed in final campaign finance reports due to the Marion County Election Board last week. The disclosures detail fundraising and spending for each school board campaign, but they don’t include groups such as Stand for Children, which sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses but is not required to disclose all of its political activity.

Although the union donation was easily the largest single contribution any candidate received, other candidates did raise more in total. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce spent more overall but gave to four candidates.

Here are the totals for each race:


Grim raised $20,930 during the election. His opponents were incumbent Sam Odle, who raised $31,893, and challenger Elizabeth Gore, who won a surprise victory in the raise. Gore has not filed a finance report, but she told Chalkbeat after the election that she raised about $1,200.

District 1

Incumbent Michael O’Connor vastly out fundraised his opponent in the race, raising $23,543, according to his disclosure. Challenger Christine Prince raised $100.

District 2

Venita Moore, a newcomer who won the seat with support from Stand for Children, raised $25,712. Ramon Batts, who had the support of OurIPS, raised $3,550. Nanci Lacy did not file a report.

District 4

Long-time board member Diane Arnold raised $16,696. Challenger Larry Vaughn did not file a report.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect a new fundraising total for Michael O’Connor, who submitted a corrected disclosure.

day one

Three new members join IPS board, Sullivan elected president

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Five IPS board members were sworn in. Left to right: Elizabeth Gore, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore and Michael O'Connor.

Mary Ann Sullivan will lead the Indianapolis Public School board for the second year in a row, bringing a dose of consistency to a board that begins the term with three new members.

At the first meeting of 2017, the seven-member board swore in three new members, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, Elizabeth Gore and Venita Moore, and two returning members, Diane Arnold and Michael O’Connor. In a clear sign of the growing collaboration between the city — which oversees dozens of charter schools — and the school district, the members were sworn in by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.

“The decisions you make here profoundly impact not only the students that attend IPS today but … the future of this great city,” Hogsett said. “As our city strives to always better our schools, your individual rules in that effort are critically important to the long-term health and well-being of this city.”

The new board unanimously elected Sullivan as president, O’Connor as vice-president and Gore as secretary. Sullivan, who was also president in 2016, joined the board two years ago as part of a wave of members who support dramatic changes aimed at improving the lowest performing schools.

“I will do my best to maintain the progress that we are making on so many fronts and to keep our sense of urgency,” Sullivan said. “I am very, very confident that this board is ready to provide the leadership needed to transform lives.”

Two of the new board members won spots following a bruising election fight for control of the board between advocates for radically overhauling the district by embracing policies such as partnerships with charter schools and critics who favor more traditional management. The third new member was chosen by the board to replace LaNier Echols, who resigned following the election.

The three newest board members bring a wide range of experience to the board. Here’s a little about each:

Dorene Rodriguez Hoops is the most mysterious new board member because she was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy, rather than going through the election process. She represents District 5, which covers the northwest section of IPS. Although her positions on many of the biggest issues facing the district are not clearly fleshed out, her personal background gives her a unique perspective on many of the issues facing IPS families. A first-generation Mexican American and fluent Spanish speaker, Hoops is the only Latina board member. She also is the only current parent on the board, with a son enrolled at Center for Inquiry School 27. Her son has special needs, and she said her work advocating for his education renewed her commitment to ensuring educational access.

Elizabeth Gore defeated Sam Odle for an at-large seat representing the entire district. Although she is newly elected, this is not her first time on the board. Gore served a term on the board before losing a reelection bid in 2012, when a wave of critics of former-superintendent Eugene White captured control. In her bid for reelection, Gore was not backed by school-reform supporters or the organized opposition, and her victory was something of a surprise. She is a graduate of Crispus Attucks High School and her three children graduated from Arsenal Technical High School, where she led the parent teacher association.

Venita Moore won a three-way race to replace former board member Gayle Cosby, a frequent critic of the administration. She represents District 2, which covers the northeast section of IPS. A business consultant with experience running a state agency, Moore was endorsed by pro-reform groups including Stand for Children. But she does not have a significant record of political work on education, so her approach to the school board is still something of an unknown. Moore is also an IPS graduate, and her daughter graduated from Crispus Attucks High School.