State Superintendent of Education Jennifer McCormick gives a presentation Wednesday at Merrillville High School. Teacher pay and work conditions are among the leading causes of the state’s retention struggle, McCormick said. Staff photo by John J. Watkins
State Superintendent of Education Jennifer McCormick gives a presentation Wednesday at Merrillville High School. Teacher pay and work conditions are among the leading causes of the state’s retention struggle, McCormick said. Staff photo by John J. Watkins
MERRILLVILLE — Educators must be diligent in speaking out and asking questions of public officials.

That was the message Indiana Superintendent of Schools Jennifer McCormick brought to Northwest Indiana in a recent talk to educators at Merrillville High School.

McCormick visited at the request of the Northwest Indiana Coalition for Public Education on Wednesday, outlining the state of education in Indiana, and legislative priorities for the current 2019 session.

“There is a way you can use your voice,” said McCormick, who will likely be the last publicly elected official to occupy the state superintendent post. “We don’t need rhetoric. We need action.”

McCormick highlighted the implications of no longer having an elected state schools superintendent, and more, in her nearly two-hour visit, encouraging educators to mobilize and voice their opinions.

Teacher raises, retention key

McCormick wasted little time getting to one of the most debated topics in Indiana education — teacher pay and retention.

“This isn’t a blast on administrators,” McCormick said. “It’s just the job is hard.”

The superintendent noted a silver lining — the state recently saw its largest increase in teacher licensing since 2000 — but said it’s hard to get excited with the number of teachers leaving early in their careers. Thirty-five percent of teachers in Indiana leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

Teacher pay and work conditions are among the leading causes of the state’s retention struggle, McCormick said.

She said the most promising proposal she’s heard to assist in an increase in teachers’ pay was Gov. Eric Holcomb’s State of the State address proposal to open up funding by allocating state surplus funds to pay off school pension liability.

McCormick also said she plans to stand firm in her advocacy for a 3 percent teacher raise.

“Three percent’s not even going to get us where we need to go, but it’s better than what I’m hearing,” McCormick said. “The budget piece is going to be huge this year.”

Referendum support not guaranteed

More than 150 of 289 Indiana school districts are declining in enrollment, McCormick shared, which correlates with 37 Indiana counties declining in population.

In Indiana’s current funding model where the money districts receive from the state follows the number of students enrolled, McCormick acknowledged that every student counts.

She shared the frustration of the audience that declining enrollment has forced many districts to turn toward referendum support to keep general and operational funds afloat.

Legislators have consistently encouraged school leaders to seek referendums, which have an 80 percent pass rate according to Indiana five-year trend data, as the state strains to find funding for public education.

But McCormick highlighted disparities in referendum attempts, noting that some districts in desperate need of funding opt not to run costly referendums because of a fear of wasting resources on a vote they believe won’t pass.

“When your General Assembly are saying, ‘You’ve got the mechanism, go get it,’ it’s not that easy,” McCormick said.

“We challenge our General Assembly; what do you do to level that playing field? How do you even get out of the gate to be able to try to get a referendum?”

Charter school issues growing

Met with boos from the audience, McCormick cautioned educators about a bill — House Bill 1641 — requiring a portion of funds collected in public school referendums to be shared with charter schools falling within the same geographic district.

“You have legislators, you have their information, you need to tell them proceed cautiously or don’t proceed at all depending on your opinion,” McCormick said.

She further expressed concerns about charter schools, pointing to their academic quality — graduating just 40 percent of students, compared to 90 percent graduation rate in public schools, according to state data.

“I’m worried about quality,” McCormick said. “They close as early as they open up.”

Role of state superintendent changing

As it grows increasingly likely that the state superintendent role will become a governor-appointed position, McCormick encouraged educators to press future gubernatorial candidates for their views on state education funding.

“That person — whomever the governor would be — is going to have great power over education,” McCormick said. “I certainly would start asking some questions.”

In Indiana, the governor currently appoints eight positions on the Indiana State Board of Education. If legislation passes this session, McCormick’s position could also become a governor-appointed role as early as 2021.

The superintendent warned against complacency and encouraged educators to organize, send emails to legislators and contact the General Assembly.

“You know families, they know you, and you’re usually highly respected,” McCormick told the audience of teachers and administrators. “It comes very different when it comes from you, so don’t underestimate that.”

Several members of the audience prodded McCormick, who has already announced she will not seek a second term as superintendent, about her future plans.

One Lake Ridge Schools board member asked McCormick if she would run for governor. Another asked if she would stay on as the state schools superintendent if appointed.

While she has no plans to run for office, McCormick said, staying on as superintendent would depend on the governorship and if her views aligned with state leadership. Regardless, she said she plans to continue working with the state in some capacity to serve kids.

“I believe in what we do,” McCormick said. “I believe in public education, and I believe in our kids and our educators.”

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