INDIANAPOLIS — Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg blamed Republican-backed school initiatives Tuesday for Indiana’s teacher shortages, while GOP nominee Eric Holcomb countered during a debate that the state isn’t alone in struggling to attract would-be educators.
The two candidates both said they want to replace the state’s much-maligned ISTEP standardized test given to some 500,000 students with an exam that will provide results faster to schools.
Holcomb and Gregg didn’t confront each other much during the morning debate on education issues before an audience mostly of students at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, but they’ve outlined several differing views in appearances this week.
Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker, said policies pushed by Republicans who control the state Legislature have caused stagnant teacher pay and greater stress on them by tying salary increases to student test results.
“We need to realize and admit that we’ve created this teacher shortage,” Gregg said. “We created this teacher shortage in the last few years by the way we’ve demeaned those in the education profession.”
Holcomb, who became Indiana’s lieutenant governor in March, countered that states across the country face similar difficulties in filling teacher positions. Holcomb said the state has provided funding increases to local schools but that he believed too much of that money was going to administrative costs rather than teacher salaries.
“We need to make sure that money is getting into the classroom, to the teacher,” he said.
Numerous school districts around Indiana have faced trouble filling some teaching positions as the number of first-time teaching licenses issued by the state Department of Education has declined by 33 percent over the past five years.
Holcomb announced an education plan on Monday that largely supports the school initiatives advanced in recent years by Republican legislators and Gov. Mike Pence, who dropped his re-election bid in July to become Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
The General Assembly established a state committee this year to recommend a replacement for the ISTEP exam beginning the 2017-18 school year after widespread criticism over the growing number of hours students faced taking the test and months-long delays in results from the state’s testing company.
The panel has made little apparent progress toward deciding on recommendations before its December deadline.
Holcomb said he believed it was important to continue standardized testing and disputed Gregg’s argument that Republicans are simply trying to keep a high-stakes exam under a different name.
“I think we do need to have a single test,” Holcomb told reporters after Tuesday’s debate. “That is a test that will measure fairly and accurately and quickly a student’s progress. That is not occurring right now.”
Gregg said Holcomb would maintain the status quo on the ISTEP issue and that those involved in deciding a new exam should realize “there is no doubt that teaching to the test has failed.”
Gregg’s education proposals include making state-funded optional preschool available for all of Indiana’s some 80,000 4-year-olds, phasing in the program over three years with an initial cost of $150 million from existing state funds.
Pence championed the state’s pre-K pilot program that was launched across five counties in 2015 and has since sent about 2,300 low income children to preschool at annual cost of about $10 million. But Pence surprised many in 2014 when he opted against seeking $80 million in federal funding, citing concerns about “federal intrusion.”
Holcomb is supporting state-funded preschool for only low-income families, saying a universal program being back by Gregg could cost the state $500 million a year.