Time to Shake Up Educational Apple Cart

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Oct. 12 and thereafter
740 words

Note to Editors: this is the second of three columns analyzing issues in the governor"s race.

INDIANAPOLIS –- A bar graph on the Indiana Department of Education website tells better than words the state of Hoosier education: lagging.

The graph shows 17 years’ worth of SAT scores, comparing Indiana’s average to the national average. In every year, our students scored below their national peers.

Average is nothing to brag about. Below-average is hard to stomach. It’s why both Joe Kernan and Mitch Daniels are pledging to make education a priority of their administrations if elected governor.

Yet, if there’s one adjective to describe their reform plans, it’s "safe." Neither’s platform would fundamentally change the way we do education.

Both use the word accountability when asked to name their top educational goal. Daniels says he wants to "implement the new accountability laws better than anybody in America." Kernan says his focus is on continuous improvement from pre-school through college. He wants to continue "to improve standards for our students and accountability in our schools."

Both believe the governor, not the voters, should appoint the state school superintendent, but Kernan has made that idea a centerpiece of his campaign. Both support full-day kindergarten, but it’s a priority for Kernan and something Daniels would wait to implement when the state’s budget picture improves. Both support charter schools, but Daniels would like to hasten the pace at which they’re being created.

Both believe in standardized testing, but Daniels would like to move the ISTEP exam from fall to spring.

What’s missing from both candidates’ educational agendas is risk-taking. Neither is pushing dramatic reform such as taxpayer-funded vouchers that could be used toward private school tuition, or tying teacher pay to student test scores. Neither wants to upset the apple cart with Election Day just weeks away. And in Indiana, the apple cart is the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Carl E. Moldthan, executive director of Taxpayers for Accountability in Government, has studied teachers’ union contributions to political campaigns in Indiana and is convinced there’s no more powerful interest group (see www.hoosiertaxes.com for the full report). As a result, they not only influence campaigns, they influence public policy and deter school-based reform.

"When I talked to Republicans last year, some of them said they were afraid to speak their minds because they were afraid ISTA would target them," Moldthan said. "Of course, the Democrats don’t want to alienate one of their largest donors. Keep in mind they (ISTA legislative campaign contributions) were four times larger than the second largest donor, which was the Chamber of Commerce. No group, no organization should have that much power."

If one looks at places across the country where the most systemic education reform is underway, it’s almost always accompanied by union resistance.

Such is the case in Chicago where Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to open dozens of new schools free of union rules has enraged the Chicago Teachers Union.

Such is the case in Minneapolis where more than 70 percent of teachers have endorsed a version of merit pay — $3,500 bonuses for teachers who rate high based on peer reviews and pupil achievement test scores.

Such is the case in Maryland where a public policy institute has called for an end to unnecessary teacher certification requirements and creation of pay-for-performance programs.

Tim Zukas of Clarksville is a concerned parent and education activist who has a long list of reforms he’d like to see the next governor tackle. Some, such as making the school superintendent an appointive position, are already on the next governor’s To Do list. Others include:

There is no single education reform that will boost Indiana’s SAT scores overnight. As Zukas points out, there are dozens of things that can and must be done to nudge scores upward.

The next governor must be willing to take political risks and shake up the apple cart. Our children deserve an above-average education. They’re not getting it.

(Next week: Capitalizing on Indiana’s location)

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