INDIANAPOLIS — Jennifer McCormick, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, said she is putting the needs of children above political expediency in asking the General Assembly for significant changes to Indiana's school systems.
That includes requiring private schools that accept state tax dollars for student tuition payments to not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children in admissions and other services, regardless of a school's religious affiliation.
"If our goal as a state is to develop a well-educated workforce, and one that we want businesses to come here because we're inclusive, we are accepting. I think part of that goes to our actions," McCormick said.
"And when we still have schools that receive taxpayer dollars that can exclude students — that's a problem."
The state schools chief acknowledged that such a policy would require the state to control, at least in part, the admissions policies of private schools; something the Republican-controlled Legislature has been loath to do since establishing the voucher program in 2011.
But McCormick said Hoosier children are ill-served by "the notion that you can't send a child, that takes taxpayer monies, to a school because they identify as LGBT."
"I think that's a little bit antiquated and it should not be accepted in this state," she said.
Along that same line, McCormick also wants to end numerous policy exemptions granted to charter and private schools because she said they put children attending those schools at risk.
For example, while public schools are required to have a school safety specialist on staff, a regularly updated school safety plan and must conduct monthly school safety drills, those mandates do not similarly apply to charter or voucher schools.
"As a parent, I would hope my child was afforded those same security thresholds as any other child in Indiana," McCormick said. "We're leaving a lot of that up to chance."
Likewise, she said students should not be languishing in low-quality charter schools just so Indiana school choice advocates can tout the state's numerous alternatives to public schools.
"Students are very mobile. It does us no good to allow any type of choice to happen without some type of accountability," McCormick said. "It's got to be about quality. It can't be open the doors and hope for the best."
Not seeking re-election
McCormick's willingness to challenge traditional Hoosier Republican education policies likely is related in part to her decision, announced last week, not to seek re-election in 2020, and to end her service as the state schools chief after just one term.
She said scheming by some House and Senate Republicans, and certain education interest groups, to have the position of state superintendent become governor-appointed in 2021, instead of 2025 as current law requires, led her to decide that she can best help children from another position.
McCormick also attributed her decision to the structure of educational governance in Indiana, particularly how much of the authority of her elected position and the Department of Education has been shifted by state lawmakers to the un-elected State Board of Education.
"I know there's a lot more that we could offer students, but because of barriers it's a struggle," McCormick said. "It has been an honor to serve Indiana, but I will serve Indiana, I will serve students, for the rest of my life. It just may not be in this role."
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Another role McCormick is giving up is State Board of Education chairwoman, a position that was stripped of nearly all meaningful authority by Statehouse Republicans when a Democrat served as state superintendent and board chairwoman between 2013 and 2016.
"My time and attention are better utilized without this unnecessary distraction," said McCormick, who will remain a member of the state school board.
At the same time, McCormick is not going totally maverick during the two years and two months remaining in her term.
She only is asking the General Assembly for an inflation-level increase in student tuition support in the new, two-year state budget that lawmakers will begin crafting in January.
Though her spending proposal also calls for targeted increases to pay for more STEM education, expanded pre-kindergarten availability, additional English language learner classes and teacher mentoring programs to improve retention of early-career educators.
"We will not stop. We've got a lot more to go in the second half of my term, and we will work tirelessly to make it happen," McCormick said.
'I will have an opinion'
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said he shares McCormick's concerns about the alignment of Indiana's education agencies, but he otherwise plans to "digest" all the other components of her 2019 legislative agenda in the weeks ahead.
"I look forward to working with her," Holcomb said. "I reminded her that we have more time left in this term than we've been here, and there's still plenty to be accomplished."
The governor declined to specifically address McCormick's proposal to require private schools that accept state tax dollars for student tuition to not discriminate against LGBT students.
"I'll digest it first before I weigh in," Holcomb reiterated. "But I will have an opinion."
The proposal is unlikely to win approval in the GOP-dominated Legislature that just three years ago approved a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that widely was seen as licensing discrimination against LGBT individuals, and provoked national boycotts of the state.
Lawmakers responded by hastily enacting a RFRA "fix" that barred LGBT discrimination based on religious reasons, but did not otherwise protect gays and lesbians from being fired, evicted or denied public accommodations for any other reason.
In any case, churches and religious schools were exempted from the RFRA fix, in effect authorizing them to continue denying taxpayer-funded services based on sexual orientation.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said Senate Democrats next year plan to stand with McCormick and push for an end to LGBT discrimination in education.
"All schools that receive public dollars should be required to treat their students, teachers and faculty with respect and equality," Tallian said.