Indiana faces countless challenges in recovering from the pandemic. Perhaps none is more important than how the state addresses its public schools. In addition to educating almost 89% of Indiana students, public schools are a foundation of our American ideals: They offer equal opportunity and access to learning. They prepare students for citizenship. They create a rare unifying experience in a rapidly splintering nation.
The Indiana Coalition for Public Education, whose members advocate for equitable, well-funded public schools accountable to democratic oversight in their communities, invited Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and Democratic challenger Dr. Woody Myers to share their views at a virtual annual meeting Saturday.
The governor did not participate. Myers, the former Indiana state health commissioner, gave a full-throated endorsement of public schools.
“You cannot de-link education from the economy, from jobs and from health,” he said. “It's just one continuum of policy decisions, and government has a key role to play in helping to ensure fairness and in guaranteeing everyone gets an opportunity to participate in the economy. I have been an advocate for education – especially public education – throughout my entire life. In keeping up with some of the changes, especially in the last decade-plus. (I've seen) with three successive governors who, in my opinion, have not prioritized education and who, in fact, privatized education along with their allies in the legislature, I knew for certain this was going to be a big issue in the election.”
Myers also noted the next governor will choose the first appointed state schools chief. He wouldn't say whom he is considering, but indicated public education would be the priority.
“I'd like to certainly appoint someone who fully believes in quality public education for our kids,” he said. “Who understands the needs of our families across the state, and prioritizes public education over the private interests of corporations, and will hold the charter schools accountable. (Someone who) is well-qualified in the field of education and puts people over politics.”
The bipartisan coalition, whose board members include former Republican state Superintendent Suellen Reed and former Democratic schools chief Glenda Ritz, also has invited Holcomb to deliver greetings to several of its Presidents Day rallies held just outside the governor's office. He never responded to those requests, according to board member Marilyn Shank. Holcomb was also missing when thousands of public school teachers participated in a Statehouse rally on the General Assembly's Organization Day last year.
“As a bipartisan organization, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education works across the aisle with elected officials, but have found that some are more willing to come to the table than others to discuss public education,” wrote Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, the coalition's board president and a Bloomington school board member, in an email. “It does not go unnoticed to ICPE members and public school supporters across the state that Gov. Holcomb finds time and space in his schedule to attend 'School Choice' events each year.”
Jake Oakman, spokesman for Holcomb's campaign, dismissed the governor's absence at public education events.
“Of course public education is a priority of the governor's,” he wrote in an email. “As evidenced by the $1.6 billion new dollars in education funding in Indiana, his commitment to raising teacher salaries, his expansion of pre-K, his bringing computer science education – including resources for professional development – to all K-12 public schools and his commitment to maintaining all state dollars already committed to education so pandemic-caused revenue shortfalls do not impact education.”
Oakman said the governor “simply cannot accommodate all the requests” he receives.
True, but this year is different. Publicschools, a key factor in Indiana's COVID-19 recovery, face funding challenges. They face danger from politicians intent on turning them into job-training programs. They face continued threats from privatization and a loss of accountability to taxpayers and the public they serve. Voters deserve to know where the candidates for governor stand on public schools and who will direct their administration's education efforts once the time for election promises is past.
Between now and Nov. 3, Hoosiers should watch for evidence of a true commitment to public education.