Election 2016

Holcomb: The best teachers expect a lot and invest even more in their students

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb

(Chalkbeat is profiling the two candidates for governor and their education policies. To read John Gregg’s profile, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.)

Some of what Eric Holcomb knows best about teaching and schools, he learned when he was a very young boy.

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, first in Knox County and then in Indianapolis Public Schools before spending the rest of her career at Pittsboro Elementary School in Hendricks County.

“I went to work every day with my mother,” said  Holcomb, who attended the school where his mother taught. “I waited while she graded papers, and then would go home everyday with my mother. I spent a lot of time at school.”

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.

Now as Holcomb, Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor, campaigns to become Indiana’s next Republican governor, he said he often draws on those early school experiences to inform his education policies.

As a child, he said, he learned that he preferred teachers who expected a lot of him, but also saw the value of each individual student and invested a lot in their success.

He also likened the challenge of helping all kids succeed in school with his experience in the Navy.

“In the Navy from boot camp on there is a constant emphasis on reaching that next level,” he said. “Watching in boot camp people come together from all places and walks of life and everyone has to learn the same thing, be a team and be responsible for everyone else. That experience proved just how valuable acquiring knowledge is. You are reliant on everyone reaching for the stars.”

So Holcomb’s education agenda includes the goal of making the teaching profession more attractive by providing teachers more autonomy and making state testing more useful for instruction.

Holcomb, who was just  appointed lieutenant governor in March after Sue Ellspermann stepped down to become president of Ivy Tech Community College, has spent his career working behind the scenes in politics.

He was a key aide to then-Gov. Mitch Daniels starting in 2003 and a strong ally to candidate and then Gov. Mike Pence as state Republican Party chairman after 2010. He then took a job as Republican U.S Senator Dan Coats’ chief of staff in 2013. Before that, Holcomb was an aide to an Indiana congressman and ran a failed campaign for congress himself in 2000. He briefly sought the Republican nomination for Coats’ seat before Pence picked him as lieutenant governor.

If Holcomb defeats former Democratic Indiana House speaker John Gregg, he’ll have to navigate a new course in the often rocky relationship that Pence had with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, or establish a new dynamic if her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick, wins.

Here’s where Holcomb said he stands on some of Indiana’s biggest education debates:

School Choice

When it comes to the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs, Holcomb said he would be a strong supporter.

“I believe in parents’ freedom to choose where they send their child,” he said. “Just like it’s the parents’ decision to buy a new house, or a buy a new car, or buy a Coke, or where to get a haircut.

“I believe in that freedom at its core and that options are good, in a world filled with options in every other thing we do in life. If a parent wants to pay taxes to support a public school system and send their child to a private school, that should be their choice. If a parent can’t do that, we ought to be working to help those who can’t. You can call it ideology, but I lean toward freedom.”

The future of ISTEP

Holcomb said he preferred to stick with a once-a-year exam, rather than follow Ritz’s proposal to break the state exam up into smaller tests that would be given throughout the year. But he hopes to find a way to make Indiana’s test cheaper and get it scored faster while making sure it still measures the state’s academic standards.

“More testing is not the answer,” he said. “It will only contribute to more anxiety and more stress — not just for the students and the teachers, but it comes home with them when parents are watching their students have this all or nothing high stakes test.

“There may be a menu of (test) options schools can choose from. We need to know, is this student ready to go on to the next grade? Are they proficient in the grade level matter that they just spent almost a year studying?”

School accountability

Indiana must continue to take action when schools repeatedly post low test scores, Holcomb said. He hasn’t taken a position on whether solutions like state takeovers of failing schools should continue, however, even as he acknowledged that those extreme measures have had mixed results in recent years.

“It doesn’t mean we give up and it doesn’t mean we continue to fund failure after a period of time,” he said. “There needs to be collaboration with all stakeholders from the state level to the local level in holding schools accountable to carry out their mission. We solved a lot of problems over the past 10-12 years. We addressed them and solved them. We are not left with the easy ones.”

Collaboration with the state superintendent

While Pence and Ritz have spent much of the past four years clashing over the direction Indiana should take on education, Holcomb pledged to be a more active partner with the state superintendent.

“We may disagree at times on how to get there but I guarantee you we won’t disagree 10 out of 10 times,” he said. “Where there areas where we can agree — be it three out of 10 times, five out of 10 or seven out of 10 — we need to get busy on those fronts. We should not let our disagreements define us.”

School funding

In his just-released education plan, Holcomb calls for more support for special education programs and for programs that help children learn English as a new language. Both Ritz and McCormick have specifically raised concerns about last year’s legislative overhaul of the state’s school funding system, arguing the new system does not provide a fair share of funding to schools that have numbers of students living in poverty. Holcomb says he is willing to look at changes.

“I do believe, in general, that the funding needs to follow the student,” he said. “I’m open to ongoing discussions, as we just had, about any tweaks that need to be made so that we are appropriately funding those in need.”


Holcomb said he favors expanding the state preschool tuition support program, but he prefers a gradual approach rather than sweeping changes. His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, is pushing for a universal, state-funded preschool program open to all four-year-olds, which would represent a massive expansion of the state program, but  Holcomb said he thinks Gregg’s approach is too costly.

“What I favor is getting the most disadvantaged among us from the back of the line to the front,” he said. “That kind of investment — not making it universal, not breaking the bank, not getting ahead of ourselves — but taking a very methodical approach to the expansion of it. Getting the data back along the way that says this is paying off.”

Teacher shortages

Holcomb dismissed the suggestion that the push for accountability and other education reforms under Daniels and Pence are reasons why schools are having difficulty filling teaching jobs.

“It’s not unique to Indiana,” he said. “It’s a national concern. We need to have great teachers involved in our students’ lives from the outset up to their delivery into the workforce. States that get that right are going to be able to outcompete those that don’t.”

The question, he said, is “how do we best cheerlead for our best teachers and encourage more to pursue this ‘key to success for life’ profession?”

A good place to start, Holcomb said, is by giving teachers more autonomy to make decisions about what happens in their classrooms. He also called for college loan forgiveness for teachers as a way of attracting them to the classroom.

“When I talk to teachers and say ‘What do you need?’ They want to be able to teach in their classroom,” he said. “They never lurch to ‘we need more money’ to me. They say ‘I want to be able to teach in the classroom.’ I want to help them on that front.”

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.