HUNTERTOWN — “We are who we vote for.”

That was State Superintendent of Education Jennifer McCormick’s message to a crowd gathered Feb. 25 at Carroll High School, urging educators, parents and other members of the community to advocate for schools at the ballot box.

“If you’re upset with the numbers, you’ve got to change your policy,” she said.

McCormick and Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel shared a plethora of data during the Feb. 25 event — put on by NACS’ Charger Advocates group — to illustrate just how far Indiana public education is lagging behind most other states.

On a positive note, Himsel said, public education has “never been better.” Across the U.S., 89% of adults carry a high school diploma — compared to 34% in 1950. At NACS, 95% of high school students have graduated, which is up from 71% in the mid-1980s. However, the state continues to fall behind the rest of the country in education funding and average teacher salaries, despite declining administrator pay.

As McCormick pointed out, Indiana has not seen an evolution in teacher salaries since 2002, and that pay continues to drop when factoring in inflation. Wages are down 26% for teachers with similar education and experience, and funding per student is only 88% of what it used to be. On average, 35% of Indiana teachers leave the profession within 1-5 years.

“When we have legislators — or community members sometimes — saying ‘you’re funded enough,’ keep this in mind,” McCormick said.

McCormick added that over the last four years, she has realized people “do not really have working knowledge” of what the Indiana Department of Education does. In total, the department represents more than half the state budget at $8 billion for K-12 education, in addition to $1 billion in federal funding. However, like Himsel pointed out, “since 1998, we continue to give more and more of our power away from our local communities and to the state — and that has been on steroids since 2010. The amount of decisions that our school board gets to make has vastly decreased from what they used to be able to do.”

McCormick noted that more than 2,200 bills affecting K-12 education have been passed in the last three years, which prevents educators from learning what does and doesn’t work in the classroom.

“If you think for a second that they are going to love local control or they are going to stop passing mass amounts of legislation, that is not going to happen in Indiana, because we are expensive and it’s going to be very, very much controlled,” she said.

A former special education teacher, McCormick noted that is one area that is “woefully underfunded” by the state and federal government.

“Our needs way outweigh the actual moneys that we are receiving in that arena,” she said. “However, as public schools we will not let off the gas on services. We do whatever we can do, and sometimes it looks miraculous based on the resources that we have.”

Special education is an especially pressing concern, she said, as schools continue to struggle to find teachers, instructional aids and behaviorists.

McCormick encouraged community members to make their voices heard by talking to general assembly members and calling the governors’ office. Anyone who needs help, regardless of political affiliation, can contact her office, she said.

“The only way we’re going to make change in Indiana in K-12 is to inform people, and it takes effort,” she said.

McCormick’s visit was part of NACS’ celebration of Public Schools Week, which was Feb. 24-28. Carroll also hosted state legislators in January. Himsel said the district hopes to host similar events in the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021.

“One of the things that we have decided to do, starting this year, is to do a better job of educating our community about various issues that are related to education,” he said.

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