NEW PALESTINE — With less than a week to Election Day, Brandon Wilson has made his decision about some of the votes he’ll cast. Wednesday, he was gathering some more information about the race for Indiana superintendent of public instruction.
Wilson lives in Shelby County, but his three children attend Southern Hancock schools. It’s not surprising, then, that the New Palestine High School graduate was interested in hearing what the candidates had to say about school choice.
Incumbent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, and challenger Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, visited New Palestine High School for a forum in the school auditorium. Each spoke of her vision for the office and then fielded submitted questions asked by Gary Halliburton of the New Palestine Chamber of Commerce. Ritz spoke, answered questions and left the room; then McCormick entered to speak and answer the same set of questions.
Ritz, elected in 2012, pointed to what she considered successful efforts of the last four years, such as outreach programs to help low-performing schools improve and career-oriented classes that help students see the relevance of their lessons.
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McCormick pointed to her own experience as superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools and described moments from Ritz’s term in which McCormick felt leadership was lacking.
“You wouldn’t want to have a chief of police who’s never been a police officer,” McCormick told the group of about 40 people gathered in the school auditorium. “And yet, we have a superintendent of public instruction who’s never been a superintendent.”
Both candidates talked about prekindergarten funding. Ritz said a pilot program serves about 1,500 students, while there are 84,000 4-year-olds in Indiana. She talked about a grant application Gov. Mike Pence didn’t sign and lamented that kindergarten is not mandatory, meaning Indiana children can start school as late as 7 years old.
“We are retaining little kids to the tune of $30 million a year because they come to us not ready,” she said.
McCormick favors introducing prekindergarten in increments, beginning by pinpointing children not being served and also supporting programs that promote development between 0 to 36 months. She said she’s heard from Head Start staff urging the department of education to slow down with rolling out wide-scale prekindergarten.
“There’s just a lot to think through,” she said.
Both candidates also spoke of the end of ISTEP. Ritz said she wants to reduce the testing burden by about eight hours and wants an assessment that offers more immediate feedback. McCormick said a state assessment panel is not making adequate progress and challenged listeners to call the state department of education to ask how long the test would take in the spring, suggesting there wouldn’t be an answer.
Both women also talked about vouchers. Ritz wants the Indiana General Assembly to examine their impact on public schools because private and public schools are receiving money from the same pool. McCormick, doubting the current Legislature would support doing away with vouchers, supports having a different fund for them.
Other topics addressed were school grades. Ritz favors feedback that avoids letter grades, while McCormick spoke of giving several grades for different areas — like a report card — instead of a single letter grade for a school.
Both also addressed teacher evaluations. Ritz said they should focus more on how teachers use data — how they adapt instruction when they see a student hasn’t grasped a concept. McCormick said critical skill sheets often arrive in December, meaning teachers have taught nearly a semester before receiving a list of the key concepts they’re supposed to be teaching.
Wilson, whose mother is an educator, heard comments from candidates about school choice and vouchers as he’d hoped, along with other information to shape his choice.
“I’m glad to see people are passionate about the education of our children,” he said.
During the forum, incumbent Glenda Ritz referred to her Imagine 2020 goals, which can be found at glendaritz.com/imagine2020/.
Challenger Jennifer McCormick referred the audience to her site, jennifermccormick.org, to learn more about her goals.