Some of what Eric Holcomb knows best about teaching and schools, he learned when he was a very young boy.
Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, first in Knox County and then in Indianapolis Public Schools before spending the rest of her career at Pittsboro Elementary School in Hendricks County.
“I went to work every day with my mother,” said Holcomb, who attended the school where his mother taught. “I waited while she graded papers, and then would go home everyday with my mother. I spent a lot of time at school.”
Now as Holcomb, Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor, campaigns to become Indiana’s next Republican governor, he said he often draws on those early school experiences to inform his education policies.
As a child, he said, he learned that he preferred teachers who expected a lot of him, but also saw the value of each individual student and invested a lot in their success.
He also likened the challenge of helping all kids succeed in school with his experience in the Navy.
“In the Navy from boot camp on there is a constant emphasis on reaching that next level,” he said. “Watching in boot camp people come together from all places and walks of life and everyone has to learn the same thing, be a team and be responsible for everyone else. That experience proved just how valuable acquiring knowledge is. You are reliant on everyone reaching for the stars.”
So Holcomb’s education agenda includes the goal of making the teaching profession more attractive by providing teachers more autonomy and making state testing more useful for instruction.
Holcomb, who was just appointed lieutenant governor in March after Sue Ellspermann stepped down to become president of Ivy Tech Community College, has spent his career working behind the scenes in politics.
He was a key aide to then-Gov. Mitch Daniels starting in 2003 and a strong ally to candidate and then Gov. Mike Pence as state Republican Party chairman after 2010. He then took a job as Republican U.S Senator Dan Coats’ chief of staff in 2013. Before that, Holcomb was an aide to an Indiana congressman and ran a failed campaign for congress himself in 2000. He briefly sought the Republican nomination for Coats’ seat before Pence picked him as lieutenant governor.
If Holcomb defeats former Democratic Indiana House speaker John Gregg, he’ll have to navigate a new course in the often rocky relationship that Pence had with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, or establish a new dynamic if her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick, wins.
Here’s where Holcomb said he stands on some of Indiana’s biggest education debates:
When it comes to the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs, Holcomb said he would be a strong supporter.
“I believe in parents’ freedom to choose where they send their child,” he said. “Just like it’s the parents’ decision to buy a new house, or a buy a new car, or buy a Coke, or where to get a haircut.
“I believe in that freedom at its core and that options are good, in a world filled with options in every other thing we do in life. If a parent wants to pay taxes to support a public school system and send their child to a private school, that should be their choice. If a parent can’t do that, we ought to be working to help those who can’t. You can call it ideology, but I lean toward freedom.”
The future of ISTEP
Holcomb said he preferred to stick with a once-a-year exam, rather than follow Ritz’s proposal to break the state exam up into smaller tests that would be given throughout the year. But he hopes to find a way to make Indiana’s test cheaper and get it scored faster while making sure it still measures the state’s academic standards.
“More testing is not the answer,” he said. “It will only contribute to more anxiety and more stress — not just for the students and the teachers, but it comes home with them when parents are watching their students have this all or nothing high stakes test.
“There may be a menu of (test) options schools can choose from. We need to know, is this student ready to go on to the next grade? Are they proficient in the grade level matter that they just spent almost a year studying?”
Indiana must continue to take action when schools repeatedly post low test scores, Holcomb said. He hasn’t taken a position on whether solutions like state takeovers of failing schools should continue, however, even as he acknowledged that those extreme measures have had mixed results in recent years.
“It doesn’t mean we give up and it doesn’t mean we continue to fund failure after a period of time,” he said. “There needs to be collaboration with all stakeholders from the state level to the local level in holding schools accountable to carry out their mission. We solved a lot of problems over the past 10-12 years. We addressed them and solved them. We are not left with the easy ones.”
Collaboration with the state superintendent
While Pence and Ritz have spent much of the past four years clashing over the direction Indiana should take on education, Holcomb pledged to be a more active partner with the state superintendent.
“We may disagree at times on how to get there but I guarantee you we won’t disagree 10 out of 10 times,” he said. “Where there areas where we can agree — be it three out of 10 times, five out of 10 or seven out of 10 — we need to get busy on those fronts. We should not let our disagreements define us.”
In his just-released education plan, Holcomb calls for more support for special education programs and for programs that help children learn English as a new language. Both Ritz and McCormick have specifically raised concerns about last year’s legislative overhaul of the state’s school funding system, arguing the new system does not provide a fair share of funding to schools that have numbers of students living in poverty. Holcomb says he is willing to look at changes.
“I do believe, in general, that the funding needs to follow the student,” he said. “I’m open to ongoing discussions, as we just had, about any tweaks that need to be made so that we are appropriately funding those in need.”
Holcomb said he favors expanding the state preschool tuition support program, but he prefers a gradual approach rather than sweeping changes. His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, is pushing for a universal, state-funded preschool program open to all four-year-olds, which would represent a massive expansion of the state program, but Holcomb said he thinks Gregg’s approach is too costly.
“What I favor is getting the most disadvantaged among us from the back of the line to the front,” he said. “That kind of investment — not making it universal, not breaking the bank, not getting ahead of ourselves — but taking a very methodical approach to the expansion of it. Getting the data back along the way that says this is paying off.”
Holcomb dismissed the suggestion that the push for accountability and other education reforms under Daniels and Pence are reasons why schools are having difficulty filling teaching jobs.
“It’s not unique to Indiana,” he said. “It’s a national concern. We need to have great teachers involved in our students’ lives from the outset up to their delivery into the workforce. States that get that right are going to be able to outcompete those that don’t.”
The question, he said, is “how do we best cheerlead for our best teachers and encourage more to pursue this ‘key to success for life’ profession?”
A good place to start, Holcomb said, is by giving teachers more autonomy to make decisions about what happens in their classrooms. He also called for college loan forgiveness for teachers as a way of attracting them to the classroom.
“When I talk to teachers and say ‘What do you need?’ They want to be able to teach in their classroom,” he said. “They never lurch to ‘we need more money’ to me. They say ‘I want to be able to teach in the classroom.’ I want to help them on that front.”