A Chance to Be an Education Leader

December 6, 2010

For release noon Dec. 7 and thereafter (680 words)

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. As governor in 1984 he pushed into law a school accountability system that rewarded teachers and districts whose students showed the most academic progress.

Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. In 1990, this Republican governor joined forces with a Democratic legislature to devise the nation’s first taxpayer-funded school choice program. It allows low-income families in Milwaukee to apply tax vouchers toward private schools.

Zell Miller of Georgia. In 1993, he became synonymous with the HOPE scholarship, which offers free in-state college tuition to high school grads with a B average.

Mitch Daniels of Indiana. During the 2011 legislature, he has the chance to shepherd into law versions of all of the above, which would move Indiana to the forefront in comprehensive educational reform. With both houses in Republican control — and the Obama administration behind him — it is a now-or-never moment. Expect U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to come here to lobby for it.

“The reform movement finally, 37 years after “A Nation at Risk,” is in motion,” Daniels said during a Dec. 2 interview in his Statehouse office. “And let’s give the president credit and Duncan, who’s been — I think – very gutsy on these questions.”

” Nation at Risk” was the 1983 report that declared, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” It included many recommendations to improve schools, such as longer school days, performance based teacher salaries and 200-day school years, most of which were never embraced. In the handful of states that jumped at the chance, reform has been piecemeal or under constant attack from unions.

For three decades, Daniels says, well-intended people have suffered from “cognitive dissonance” towards public education. To put his point in less artful terms, the folks who’ve lobbied for more money for schools have been unwilling to change the way it’s spent.

“People who have been desperately, sincerely concerned about low income children and minority children or just children who aren’t succeeding have finally realized that you cannot stay wedded to the status quo and the union and the political allegiances that have kept them frozen,” Daniels said.

“So now across the political spectrum you’ve got people who might not agree on other things who agree: We’ve got to pay the best teachers more. We’ve got to have more accountability in the system. We’ve got to open up the range of options” for families.

Thus the Daniels 2011 agenda will include:

• A performance pay plan for teachers that will build on the ideas launched in Tennessee under Lamar Alexander. Says Daniels, “We simply know statistically that teaching is the most important thing in education and in terms of kids’ results.”

• Removal of statutory, regulatory and contractual limitations on principals so they can direct resources to where they are most needed. “Educators make a very good point,” Daniels says, “that if they’re going to be held more accountable for how the kids do, we need to take the handcuffs off.”  This means eliminating rules and paperwork that have nothing to do with academic performance, while limiting the scope of collective bargaining.

• Along the lines of Zell Miller’s HOPE scholarship, an early graduation option for high school students who complete Core 40 requirements early. It would allow them to apply to in-state college costs the tuition support they would have received as high school seniors.

• More school options for families, which Daniels calls “a matter of both civil justice and civil rights.” Although Indiana has had charter schools since 2002, Daniels says their growth has been unfairly hampered. Also, Daniels wants a scholarship program so families of modest means could use tax money to help pay for private schooling if they choose, as in Milwaukee.

None of these ideas looks threatening by itself; all have been tried and proven elsewhere. Taken together, this reform package could transform Indiana’s educational landscape. For the 2011 legislature it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


Leave a Reply