The Journal Gazette
Thursday, March 21, 2019 1:00 am


People's guardian?

Appointed secretary could hasten state's turn away from public education

Republican Jennifer McCormick will leave office at the end of 2021 as Indiana's last superintendent of public instruction. She might also leave as the last educator in the top education post. House Bill 1005, approved by the Indiana Senate Tuesday, doesn't require the governor to appoint an educator as secretary of education.

The legislation, which accelerated the appointment by four years after McCormick announced she would not seek a second term, requires the appointee to have an advanced degree, “preferably in education or educational administration (emphasis added),” and to be either a licensed educator or to have at least five years of work experience as a teacher, superintendent or executive in the field of education.

Republican leaders held firm against efforts to amend the bill. When four-term state Superintendent Suellen Reed urged the Senate Education Committee to require an education-related degree, first-term Sen. Aaron Freeman pointed out that such a requirement would have prevented Mitch Daniels' appointment as president of Purdue University or Betsy DeVos' selection as U.S. secretary of education. 

“I, sitting on the Senate Education Committee, don't profess to have a subject-matter (expertise) or an advanced degree in education,” Freeman said.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, also objected to an education-related degree requirement.

“Obviously we want somebody who has some experience in the field of education, and that could be a broad number of factors,” he said. “This, I think, would make it unnecessarily narrow.”

The broader pool Bray supports would allow the governor to appoint, for example, Rep. Robert Behning, a former small business owner who now works for a private university.

The governor could appoint Rep. Todd Huston, a former chief of staff for state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who returned to his job with a state vendor before taking an executive position at the College Board. The bill also allows the governor to set the salary for the post – almost assuredly at a higher rate than the $101,228 McCormick earned last year.

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said the governor's appointment could adversely affect public education. If a business professional is tapped, his or her approach might be to run education as a business, prioritizing charter, voucher and virtual schools.

“Educators are concerned that this shift in Indiana to privatizing our public education is going to be a focus, a big focus of this institution,” Stoops said.

The concern is well-founded. The move to strip the 168-year-old constitutional provision for an elected superintendent of public instruction comes from the friction between privatization supporters in the governor's office and General Assembly and the last two state superintendents – one a Democrat and one a Republican. 

If Indiana voters believe the cabinet-level secretary of education should be an educator, they must vote in 2020 for a governor who pledges to appoint one. Or, they might even choose to support a candidate for governor who is an educator.

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