LOGANSPORT – John has to be more Gregg-arious to win. In politics, there are two things that matter to voters: How much they like you as a person and how much they like what you stand for or want to do if you’re elected.
In 2012, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg scored heavily with voters on likability. If you didn’t know John Gregg before he ran for governor, you either knew him as “the man with two first names” or the man associated with mustaches on bumper stickers or folksy television commercials. In short, there simply wasn’t anything not to like about John Gregg, unless you were voting for Mike Pence.
If the recent Indiana Democratic State Convention left any impression on delegates, it was that Gregg is ready for a second run, even if that appeared unlikely in the months following Pence’s narrow win.
Gregg’s candidacy presumes first that there won’t be an Evan Bayh redux in the governor’s race, and that will throw things wide open. It presumes that polling will indicate Gregg is still strong in a head-to-head with Pence, who now has incumbency on his side. And it assumes that Democrats don’t have any other fish in the barrel who might prove to be Pence antidotes for the party. It’s extremely doubtful that Pence will be a serious presidential candidate in 2016, but if he isn’t serious about being a candidate for governor, that could be an opening for Gregg, who is battle-tested in a statewide race.
Assuming that all those questions add up to John Gregg as the best chance the Democrats have, then the big question is this: How does he convince voters to like him more than Pence?
If Pence has an Achilles heel exposed, it’s in the area of education. Problems behind the scenes with State School Supt. Glenda Ritz have been so strong that speculation has led to her name being mentioned as the party’s standard-bearer in 2016. That probably won’t happen, but if Ritz’s election in 2012 proved anything it was that money and incumbency didn’t matter in a key statewide race. That’s a harbinger for an underdog Gregg, and his campaign staff ought to remember it every day. Even in a state where Republicans have had their way with Democrats the past three general election cycles, with the exception of Barak Obama’s 2008 win, voters simply liked what Ritz stood for and represented more than Tony Bennett. In fact, they may have liked her simply because she wasn’t Tony Bennett.
That is simply where Gregg has to score, and score well to defeat Pence because so much of the state tax dollar is spent on education. There are a bevy of issues out there on the table. Let’s take a stab at a few:
1. Common Core revisited. Indiana’s new statewide standards will either put Indiana out ahead of the pack or on an island behind it. The 2016 race may be too soon to assess the impact, but it’s a step Pence has taken that will likely be open to debate.
2. Gubernatorial authority over the education process. State school superintendent is an elected position, yet there is concern that some of the responsibility of the office in setting policy for the state has been usurped by Pence. The issue here is not just whether Pence can but should do this, since there is a statewide officeholder elected to do what Pence has taken on himself.
3. The school funding formula. This has been an issue considered more in the 1980s and 1990s than the 21st century, but as charter schools collect funds that could be in public school coffers, the debate will continue. Unfortunately, it is overshadowing the real debate on whether underperforming schools should receive more money or be punished and receive less.
4. Compensation. Indiana is not a strong union state, but reviewing entry level pay for starting teachers regardless of their credentials is an issue. If Indiana sets prevailing wages for construction projects, why can’t it set a prevailing wage minimum for teacher salaries as well?
5. Consolidation. Indiana went through this transformational process in the 1960s, but there are plenty of examples of schools that could be consolidated to better serve students and taxpayers. Anderson and Kokomo have fewer schools now than 25 years ago, and there are examples such as Crawford County and White River Valley that could serve as an example to other communities.
6. Course offerings. If Indiana is going to offer the academic honors diploma and encourage students to pursue it, offering summer school for students at small high schools where there are limited math, science and foreign language offerings can only open the doors for more students who really want to excel at the highest level.
7. Gifted education. Educators may call these students high ability learners, but regardless of the label, Indiana has strayed from the days when H. Dean Evans came up with the A+ education plan and a summer institute where the state’s brightest young minds can spend with their peers from across the state, a period of enrichment they won’t likely get in their own communities. Instead, parents invest in summer camps for cheerleading, music and athletics.
8. Year-round education. This would give students, particularly those in the Indianapolis area, more chances to succeed if they’ve flunked a class, dropped out because of illness or pregnancy, or simply can’t keep up with their peer group. Offering more opportunities would likely raise the state’s graduation rate and keep more students on a glidepath to finish their high school education with a degree.
9. Administrator training. This was one of the components of Evans’ plan, and it allowed principals in particular to receive the best training the state can provide based on an application process.
10. Student-teacher ratios. Since the implementation of PrimeTime, this hasn’t been much of an issue. But a reinvigoration of it could find some real disparity in the number of students that teachers in one corporation are leading  compared with others. Higher ratios generally mean lower achievement for students and schools and set them and their teachers up to fail or fall behind other schools.
These issues may not be on Gregg’s radar right now, but if voters want to get a handle on Gregg or if Gregg wants to put a handlebar on that mustache so that voters can get a handle on what he might be like as governor, it’s a way to start a serious discussion about improving education in Indiana.  v

Kitchell is an award-winning columnist based in Logansport.