Your guide to the 6 GOP hopefuls’ takes on education policy

In the six-way May 7 Republican gubernatorial primary, each candidate has outlined his or her plans for overseeing and improving education in Indiana – some more detailed than others – should they find themselves in the governor’s office next January.

Since voters no longer have a say in selecting the state’s top education chief – a position now appointed by the governor – where a gubernatorial candidate stands on education issues also affords us a glance into how the Indiana Department of Education could be shaped under a new administration.

We’ve caught wind of questions (and perhaps also some anxieties) coming from education stakeholders on what’s in store depending on who the state’s next commander-in-chief will be – what they will do about current changes that will still be in early implementation in the coming years (i.e. the science of reading, new high school diplomas, voucher expansion), who they will appoint as Secretary of Education, and generally, what new ideas they will bring.

All candidates except Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch (R) list some sort of education-related platform on their respective websites. Some are more vague statements, while some offer detailed policy plans. Generally, most of them align on the same issues, with a few specific differences between them. Central to all their plans is that Indiana can do better in educating its students.

All six support efforts to promote more work-based learning and flexible pathways to pursue careers starting in high school. U.S. Sen. Mike Braun (R) and former secretary of commerce Brad Chambers (R) have particularly made workforce and education bigger parts of their platforms. All six also generally tout they support school choice, with emphasis on parental rights in schools.

Meanwhile, branching out, Lt. Governor Crouch and former attorney general Curtis Hill (R) want to scale back the Indiana Department of Education. Chambers and former secretary of commerce Eric Doden (R) direct greater focus on teacher pay, each detailing plans on what they believe the state can do to recruit and retain more educators.

Some, particularly Hill, Braun, and Jamie Reitenour (R), are pushing to return “back to basics,” and for schools to focus on core academic subjects. By that, they have in some form vowed to ban or push back against DEI policies and teaching of critical race theory.

Reitenour also already tapped her pick for secretary of education, Paige Miller, a former teacher who leads the Hamilton County chapter of the controversial Moms for Liberty. The other candidates have not revealed their respective selections for the post.

Now, we’ll dive more into the specifics related to questions we asked each candidate regarding their stances on key issues in the state right now.

Work-based Learning and “Rethinking High School”

A topic we’re seeing pushed more by state officials is the idea of “rethinking high school,” and wanting students to start thinking about their career paths earlier. This also comes with an effort to give way for more access to career and skilled-based learning, shifting somewhat away from previous sole narratives pushing college-going and degree-attainment.

We’ve seen this message come to fruition with HEA 1002-2023 and the creation of Career Scholarships Accounts, as well as the Indiana Department of Education’s current redesign of high school diplomas that hinge on flexibility, work-based learning, and promoting choosing career pathways in high school. Both are changes that are in their early stages and would ultimately be overseen in the long-term by the next governor.

All six candidates are on board with the direction to promote skills-based learning . . . but they see it working in conjunction with continuing to encourage higher education and college-going for students who want that path.

Sen. Braun asserts that high school graduates need to leave school prepared for their next move, either to enter the workforce or pursue a degree.

Sen. Braun – who got his start in elective politics as a school board member in Dubois County – explains, “I know parents are the primary stakeholders in their children’s education, and every family, regardless of income or zip code, should be able to enroll in a school of their choice and pursue a curriculum that prepares them for a career, college or the military.” Braun continues that he supports efforts by the state currently on rethinking high school, “Indiana is improving in this space with innovative diploma pathways. I want to see that we execute at a high level on these policy improvements and that we better meet the needs of Hoosier families and employers.”

A large part of Chambers’ education platform centers around preparing students for their future through his “Learn More, Earn More” plan, which we’ve detailed for you previously.

Chambers tells us the state and the country for too long have focused on only on higher education and four-year degrees. He observes, “We can and should equally promote both four-year degrees and skill-based learning that can lead to the pursuit of a career in the building trades, a two-year degree, credential or certificate because we know each student is unique.”

On the specific new programs for which Chambers echoes support, “the Career Scholarship Account program is an incredible innovation by the state legislature to do just that, and as governor, I’d look to increase funding for the program so more students can take part in it. I’d also propose the creation of a civics pathway, where students could learn more about being a law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMT or member of the National Guard, to be included in the program,” he says.

Lt. Gov. Crouch has proposed combining all K-12 education, higher education, and workforce programs under one agency, consolidating the work spread among IDOE, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, and the Indiana Department of Education. Crouch elaborates that her “plan is to revamp our education system with an emphasis on preparing our students for enrollment, enlistment, employment, or apprenticeship. We must prepare our children for the jobs of the future and align our workforce training curriculum with current and future market demands.”

The LG adds she also wants to focus on increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, revealing, “when I visit companies around the state, their employees shared that they have more meaningful lives because these companies focus on hiring Hoosiers with disabilities.”

Doden agrees that “it’s good to have a lot of options for students. He notes, “some kids really enjoy school and want to go on to higher education, some kids really want the opportunity to do the trades.”

He tells us, “We’ve kind of floated an idea along those lines of bringing up seniors in particular to be able to do more internships and be in the classroom a little bit less, especially in the last half of their senior year …. I think that doing those kinds of things could really be beneficial to help kids make better more informed decision when it comes to their senior year especially what they want to do.”

Hill is of the opinion Indiana should continue to encourage work-based learning with greater frequency.

The former AG remarks, “It’s imperative that we continue to look for ways in which to identify advantages that particular children have, so that they’re successful. Some kids, are going to thrive in the standard K -12 and going to college, some kids aren’t so as many options as we can look at would be great. So, I certainly support expanding the idea that all kids should be

looking at particular careers that don’t necessarily include college.”

Miller, speaking on behalf of Reitenour’s campaign, also believes the state is going int the correct direction in rethinking high school.

“It just an exposure we have not exposed kids to before,” Miller says. “So, what we want to do is say okay, now you’re going into high school. Do you want to go to college? We’ve got a track for that. Do you want to get into careers? We’ve got a track for that. Or do you want to go into the military? We’ve got a track for that. We can’t keep giving them a one size fits all and then be surprised when it doesn’t fit because it doesn’t fit everyone. So that’s why we’re talking about bringing in apprenticeships and doing those types of things.”

Expanding, Changing School Choice Programs

Lawmakers this session gave us a preview of their plans to look at overhauling the state’s voucher program by replacing it with a new, universal system. The proposal we saw included combining the state’s School Choice Vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, and Career Scholarships Account programs into one new program for parents to essentially design their child’s education.

All the GOP candidates have voiced their support for school choice in the state, and most have come out to support expanding vouchers. The two standouts on voucher expansion are Hill and Reitenour, who have some hesitancy at throwing funding at the program.

Sen. Braun supports a voucher expansion, and asserts “I strongly support vouchers and do not believe in a one-size-fits all education system. With over 50% of our state resources spent on K-12, we need to innovate in our education solutions.”

Chambers argues part of the problem with some of the areas Indiana student perform poorly in is because funding isn’t fully-funding the students. “Instead, it finds its way into bloated construction budgets for more buildings and inflated administration salaries,” he contends.

“I support universal vouchers – not because I prefer one type of school or another – but because I believe parents deserve the right to choose the best school for their child to succeed and be prepared for a brighter future,” Chambers continues. “That choice generates necessary competition between all schools to improve outcomes, which we must do.”

Crouch reminds us she voted for school choice legislation during her time in the General Assembly, and says she “would continue to champion these programs as governor.”

She asserts, “competition is critical to educational improvement and allows parents to select the best option for their children . . . but she acknowledges “we also must support our traditional public schools, recognizing that 90% of Hoosier students attend them.”

Doden tells us he’s been very clear on this issue, and that he’s for “anything that gives parents a voice.” Doden, like Crouch, argues that competition makes schools better.

“I’m a big fan of competition and vouchers and making sure that you know, each kid can have the best education for them possible. And so I think anything that we can do, to give parents choice, give kids flexibility,” Doden asserts. He adds, “I will tell you, behind closed doors with leaders, public school leaders have told me that competition has made them better and that they’re not always necessarily against vouchers.”

While Hill supports school choice, he says that can’t be viewed as the only solution to improving education in Indiana.

“I think there’s too many schools in the state of Indiana that are having troubles, whether they’re completely failing, or whether they’re having other difficult measures.” Hill continues, “What we have to get away from is the idea that choice isn’t the only answer.” Hill adds putting money into expanding vouchers is not going to fix educational problems because “too much of an emphasis that vouchers is the answer takes us away from some of the really, really hard issues that we have to deal with,” he adds.

Miller similarly supports parental rights and school choice (Reitenour’s children are homeschooled), but she and Reitenour do not believe the current vouchers system has proven to work. Miller’s question to lawmakers: “Why would you expand on something that’s already not working? Are we seeing educational growth out of this?”

“When that money moves and our biggest focuses are going to be our regions one, seven and nine. And that’s Gary, that Indianapolis and Evansville. Those are really struggling areas, right. I don’t believe you can voucher your way out of it. You have got to get back to teaching basics,” Miller observes.

The Literacy Issue

We’ve been constantly hearing about the state’s literacy crisis over the last several months, as in five third graders failed IREAD-3 last year . . . and several thousand moved on to the next grade without foundational reading skills.

A priority of GOP lawmakers, Governor Eric Holcomb (R), and Secretary of Education Katie Jenner this session was to push for

a literacy overhaul legislation. A key part of that was mandatory retention in third grade for students who fail the IREAD-3 at the end of the year.

Key changes made to retention, how reading is taught in the state, and how to intervene early with struggling students are being implemented now, meaning the next governor will have to examine the effectiveness of these initiatives as they pan out over the next few years. Schools in the state, for example, aren’t expected to fully implement the science of reading instruction until 2026.

Sen. Braun tells us he agrees with the mandatory retention law. He asserts “the state should continue to be aggressive and set high expectations for our students. Both their success, and the future success of our state, is dependent on it.”

Chambers’ “Learn More, Earn More” plan pulls focus to “making sure kids can read as they move into fourth grade, and the plan on reading nearly mirrors the policies passed by the General Assembly and pushed by the current governor.

Chambers notes that “students who are unable to read by the time they leave third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school altogether.” He continues, “Knowing that, and that one in five Hoosier third graders can’t read, means that Indiana is facing not only a literacy crisis but a looming economic catastrophe. That’s why I fully support the state legislature’s policy to give struggling students more resources and hold them back as a last resort.”

LG Crouch did not say directly if she supports retaining students, and instead voiced support for intervening with students early to help them learn how to read if they are struggling.

If a child cannot read by third grade, they will struggle through school and life. It’s critical to prepare our children for success,” Crouch states. “We will identify those children who are struggling in second grade and get them help so they can pass the reading test in third grade and move on with their peers.”

She notes her education policies as governor would be rooted in the “four Rs: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and reasoning.” She adds, “We will teach our children how to think, not what to think.”

Doden is not supportive of retention, and he notes his education policy plan focuses heavily on early learning. He argues the state’s surplus could be used for early childhood education.

“There’s got to be better solutions than just holding kids back,” Doden observes. “And so I want to focus on things like early childhood education and some of the different programs that are coming to bear and make sure that we do the best job we can. As I’ve said many times, we have a constitutional – but I also would say moral – obligation to do the best we can to educate our kids.”

Hill also is not supportive of the state requiring mandatory retention in third grade, and offers the state should put more focus on identifying struggling students. Hill circles back to his parental involvement and local control platform on the issue saying, “I don’t agree with is the state getting involved with mandating education response, it may be appropriate to hold a third grader back, it may not. It’s an individual decision that should be made with teachers with administrators in consultation with parents.”

“We have third graders who are not reading, we need to make sure that we’re identifying and putting them in a program, whether it’s in the third grade revisited, or moving on in the fourth grade … we’re making sure that they’re getting the additional resources they need to get caught up and put into the place where they should be,” Hill adds.

Hill, as we mentioned earlier, believes a scaled-back IDOE will bring the best results to improve the education system in the state overall. He’s vowed to cut the department in half. Hill explains, “We want to improve our education system, and it’s hard to see how we’re going to improve our education system by letting our Indiana Department of Education continue to grow and grow and grow when we need those resources out in the field.”

Miller as an individual testified against the literacy legislation SEA 1-2024 when it traveled through the General Assembly. She does not believe the policy will do enough to help the problem.

“Why didn’t they have a group of teachers coming when they were developing a bill? Because I guarantee you we could have told them a lot of things,” Miller ponders. “They do these things, and this bill passes, and then they wipe their hands over it. Where are you when this isn’t going to work? And are you going to put all the kids that failed in one class? Because that’s what you need to do. Do you have the guts to do that? And then remediate those students?”

Miller adds that if she’s secretary of education under a Reitenour administration, she would have teachers involved more on the legislative process. She vows, “I will have teachers down there all the time. [Lawmakers] can’t keep doing things to them. This needs to be a ‘we.’”

Addressing Teacher Shortages

Your favorite education newsletter has kept you up to date over the last two years on the number of teaching position openings

across the state. Indiana currently has 1,900 teaching positions open.

Currently, Indiana law requires a minimum salary of $40,000 for full-time teachers. Most, but not all, school districts meet the salary requirement. But, trends show district in the state still show fewer teachers are being retained.

Sen. Braun emphasizes that state needs to ensure schools are budgeting properly to pay teachers higher wages. Rewarding teachers will help retain them, he says.

“With 50% of our state’s resources spent on K-12, we need to make sure the money reaches the classroom instead of being spent on administrative costs,” Braun asserts. “Good teachers deserve to be paid a competitive and rewarding salary. Rewarding our quality teachers will help with retention and recruitment – two areas we need to improve on across the state.”

The Chambers “Learn More, Earn More” plan details a focus on paying teachers more based on performance and demand. He suggests offering teachers in high-demand subjects, such as STEM, a higher salary to compete with other employment opportunities.

“Teaching is an important profession, one that is essential to our social and economic futures. But for decades, it hasn’t been treated as such,” Chambers tells us. “Teachers must be paid more than they earn today, and their pay should be based on their performance in the classroom and the outcome of their efforts, not simply on the length of their tenure.”

He continues that the current system, which focuses on tenure, is “unfair to new and high-performing teachers.”

Crouch says the state should listen to teachers’ concerns and “treat them with respect.” She draws back to her plans to scale back the IDOE, noting, “A benefit of my plan to modernize education will be our ability to put more money in the classroom – this includes teacher salaries – and less to the ever-expanding education bureaucracy.”

Crouch adds her plan to eliminate the state’s personal income tax, “Axe the Tax,” would also directly benefit teachers as “we will keep more money in their pocket,” the LG says.

A significant component of Doden’s campaign revolves around detailed policy proposals. In education he wants to improve teacher compensation through his K-12 teacher investment program. Part of that involves repealing the state income tax for K-12 teachers and giving teachers a refundable state income tax credit, of up to $3,000, to offset property taxes.

‘This is a direct pay raise. It goes right to the teacher because when you’re income tax and property tax free, that doesn’t go through the administration, it doesn’t go through the union, it goes right to the teacher,” Doden explains “It’s about a $5,000 pay raise on average. So, I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Doden tells us he’s also heard from teachers seeking more flexibility, and less regulation. He notes, “When it comes to some of the different structures that we have in place or, you know, there’s a lot of concern about this teaching to a test, or doing an assessment, versus having the flexibility to really teach …. I also just think that we need to kind of get back to some basics.”

Hill, who often brings up that his wife is a teacher, wants to raise teacher pay, but the issue goes beyond that. He believes more work should be done to assist teachers’ workloads as well.

“We want to identify ways in which to compensate teachers, and that it’s fair and allows them to make a comfortable living, but it’s really about conditions of teaching,” Hill explains. “If you pay a teacher to teach a six or seven hour day, or seven or eight hour day, there’s an expectation that he or she will put that time in and go home to their families. What happens if you talk to the average teacher, teaching doesn’t stop.”

Miller explains under her leadership with Reitenour, the teacher shortage is “probably going to get worse before it gets better,” because Miller wants to eliminate all teachers in elementary schools with emergency teaching licenses.

On teacher pay, Miller also believes that pay is more of a local school district decision, and not up to the state. She adds she does not think all school districts can afford to pay teachers $60,000, which is a goal Governor Holcomb set for schools to reach. Instead, Miller proposes offering incentives to teachers to get them to stay in the profession. She would bring back mentor programs in schools for new teachers.

“Every first year teaching is the loneliest profession there is We are with kids all day,” Miller says. “That’s the way it is. It’s a lonely profession. We’re not with other adults. We’re closed in a classroom with you know, six year olds or eight year olds or whatever your age level is. We had mentors, and I don’t know what I would have done my first couple of years teaching without a mentor.”

Following the May 7 primary, whoever receives the GOP nomination will face former state superintendent of public instruction Jennifer McCormick (D), who was a public school superintendent before she successfully ran for statewide office in 2016 (on a GOP state ticket with Hill, Holcomb, and Crouch)

and Donald Rainwater (L). Dr. McCormick is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

With that said, given Dr. McCormick’s background in education, we expect to see even more discussions in this governor’s race surrounding candidates’ policies on education leading up to the general election in the fall.