By Rachel Hoffmeyer
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — During Monday’s debate between state superintendent of public instruction candidates, Republican nominee Jennifer McCormick revealed new specifics for her pre-K program that echo the plan of her opponent, Democrat Glenda Ritz.
McCormick, the current superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools, has regularly said she wants to begin by focusing on the most at-risk students and then having a conversation about a long-term goal of expanding pre-K access to all children. At the hour-long debate at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, McCormick called for first targeting at-risk students and eventually culminating in a universal program in 2020.
Candidates for state superintendent of public instruction, Republican Jennifer McCormick and Democrat Glenda Ritz, debated education issues Monday. Photo by Rachel Hoffmeyer, TheStatehouseFile.com
Current superintendent of public instruction, Ritz, rolled out a plan in June that calls for quality pre-K available by 2020 for any family who wants it. Her proposal would provide seats in a high-quality pre-K classroom for 50 percent of children in the state, a number that is comparable to other states with a universal program.
McCormick said she’s worried that if the state moved as quickly as Ritz has proposed, the progam would struggle to maintain funding.
“It does us no good to roll out a pre-K program and then have 40 kids in a first grade classroom,” she said.
The funding is available to maintain the program, according to Ritz, who argued her program will cost less than 1 percent of the state budget and would use money separate from K-12 education funding. She pointed to unused dollars that are already outlined for children and the $30 million spent each year on students repeating kindergarten.
She pushed back against McCormick’s plan to only provide pre-K to students whose family incomes are 200 percent below the poverty level.
“We cannot afford to have a program in which we’re going to have students be winners or losers,” Ritz said.
During the legislative session, lawmakers voted to get rid of ISTEP by the 2017-2018 school year, and a panel of legislators, administrators and teachers are currently searching for a replacement.
Ritz released a plan last week that includes scrapping IREAD-3, a reading assessment for third-graders. Instead she wants to incorporate reading assessments into three shorter tests. The test would be taken online ,and questions would get harder or easier based on a student’s answers.
Her overall goal is to keep testing time under 1 percent of total classroom instruction time by getting rid of roughly eight hours of testing. She also is pushing to get results back to students, teachers and families faster.
“I am proposing that we streamline our content,” she said.
McCormick said she supported getting rid of IREAD-3 if another exam assessed those skills. She has proposed a single summative test that would also take less than 1 percent of total classroom instruction time.
Despite their similarities, McCormick called Ritz’s plan “another political message” and criticized her for how she rolled out the plan. She argued sending out the plan from her office confused teachers, leading them to think it was the proposal from the panel created to replace the test. But Ritz said she had no other options because the panel refused to give her an opportunity to present her plan at its meetings.
Politics in education
McCormick invoked the political divide repeatedly throughout the debate, stating she’s an educator and not a politician. People from both political parties have good ideas, she said.
“It’s not about a blame game. It’s not about victims here. It’s about students,” she said.
Ritz is no stranger to conflict at the Statehouse. Since being elected in 2012, she’s faced off with Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers. Pence even created an agency to take over some school-related responsibilities, a department he later dismantled.
On stage she let McCormick’s criticism blow past her.
“I’ve been used to these political attacks for four years on my department and my leadership,” Ritz said. “So I’m about serving children and moving forward.”
Rachel Hoffmeyer is the executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a website powered by Franklin College journalism students.