Published Online: May 12, 2011

Indiana Education Package Bears Conservative Stamp

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels autographs the arm of one of the school children who attended a May 5 bill-signing ceremony at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Daniels signed into law a bill creating the nation's broadest school voucher program, and another that calls for an expansion of charter schools in the state.
—Michael Conroy/AP

As states around the country near the end of contentious legislative sessions, few have made as many dramatic changes to education policy as Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow Republicans have put a conservative stamp on issues ranging from school choice to teacher evaluations and collective bargaining.

Those victories come amid speculation about whether Mr. Daniels will pursue the 2012 GOP presidential nomination—a possibility that would almost certainly make his schools agenda the focus of intense national scrutiny, and partisan debate.

Lawmakers in Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature, with Mr. Daniels’ support, this year approved the creation of what might be the nation’s most ambitious voucher program, as well as charter school expansion, pay-for-performance for educators, and restrictions on teachers’ collective-bargaining powers.

Republicans have pursued similar agendas in numerous states on the heels of a GOP wave in last year’s elections, which put the party in control of a majority of governor’s office and its largest number of legislative seats since the late 1920s.

Yet Indiana’s agenda is unusual for the broad sweep of its education proposals, some of which closely resemble other state models, while others—particularly the private-school choice plan—take school policy in a new direction.

“We believe we have done some things that will make a profound difference in the lives of children in our state,” Gov. Daniels said at a May 4 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Those states’ new laws, he said, “will make a significant difference in the economic prospects of our state, if we can implement them well.”

Sweeping Changes

By the conclusion of Indiana’s legislative session late last month, lawmakers had approved a host of far-reaching policy changes, some of the most significant of which will affect the teaching profession.

One such measure, signed by Mr. Daniels on April 20, will limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights to wage-and-benefits issues, removing numerous working conditions and procedures for dismissing teachers as subjects of negotiation between districts and unions. District officials would, however, be expected to hold discussions with teachers on some policy decisions, such as curriculum and textbooks, teaching methods and class sizes.

New School Landscape in Indiana

Gov. Mitch Daniels and Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature approved a host of laws this year that will have a far-reaching impact on school policy. Among the highlights:

• SB575. Limits teachers’ collective bargaining to wage and benefits issues, and forbids bargaining on working conditions. Certain other school policy decisions, such as curriculum and class sizes, must be discussed with teachers but are not part of the collective bargaining process.

• SB1. Requires school districts to develop new forms of teacher evaluation that include measures of gains in student achievement. Educators’ performance, not just seniority, is factored into decisions about salary increases.

• HB1002. Creates a new statewide entity that can sponsor charter schools. Sets new academic standards and regulations on charter schools, and sets new requirements intended to ensure fair admissions policies at charters.

• HB1003. Establishes new voucher program that provides public funds for private-school tuition to both low- and middle-income families. Creates new tax deduction for private-school tuition and home schooling; expands cap on tax credit program for organizations offering private-school scholarships.

• HB1001. Allows high school students who graduate early to use $4,000 in state aid to attend in-state public or private colleges.

New laws in Wisconsin and Ohio that restricted teachers’ collective bargaining powers, and drew major protests from educators and other public workers, now face legal and political challenges. While Indiana’s law drew less nationwide scrutiny, it was strongly opposed by teachers’ unions and Democratic state lawmakers.

Teachers also were angered by the passage of another Indiana law that will require that teachers be evaluated annually and that their ability to produce gains in student achievement, as measured by test scores and other factors, be considered. It also ties salary increase to performance, rather than just factors such as seniority.

Other newly approved laws are meant to provide a wider range of educational options for students. One measure will make it easier to sponsor charter schools and convert traditional public schools into charters, while also setting new regulations and academic standards for them. Another law will allow students who graduate early from high school to receive $4,000 in state aid to cover tuition at in-state public or private colleges

Expansive Voucher Program

But the piece of Indiana’s agenda that has drawn the most attention is the voucher measure, signed into law on May 5.

Around the country, state programs to provide vouchers, or public dollars for private school tuition, have typically limited the pool of eligible applicants to students from low-income backgrounds, or to special populations, such as students with disabilities. But Indiana’s law will allow families to receive vouchers if they earn incomes up to 150 percent of the federal qualifications for free or reduced-price lunches. Families of four with annual household incomes up to about $62,000 would be eligible.

Students from poorer families would be eligible for larger amounts of aid—about 90 percent of per-student public funding—while students from families with greater annual incomes would receive 50 percent. For children in grades 1-8, the maximum voucher amount would top out at $4,500 per year. For students in grades 9-12, the amount would vary by family income level.

The Indiana voucher law also sets unusually strong testing requirements for private schools that receive students through the voucher program.

Until now, all state-accredited private schools were given a choice of participating in either the Indiana statewide assessment, known as the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus, or in another norm-referenced test. Non-accredited private schools did not have to meet that requirement. Currently 227 of Indiana’s state-accredited private schools take the ISTEP, said Alex Damron, a spokesman for the state department of education.

Under the new law, all private schools that accept students through the new voucher program—whether the schools are state-accredited or not—will have to participate in ISTEP. Additionally, participating private schools will be required to have all students take the ISTEP and report their scores at all the grade levels required of public schools—not just the grade levels at which they are accepting students on vouchers.

Additionally, all participating private schools in the voucher program also will have their academic performance graded on the state’s A-F scale, which Indiana officials are in the process of rolling out for all of the state’s public schools.

Tough Testing Mandate

While many states set testing requirements for private-school voucher programs, few, if any, have as strong a mandate as Indiana’s new law, according to the Foundation for Educational Choice, in Indianapolis, which tracks such efforts.

Robert C. Enlow, the chief executive officer of the foundation, which supported the voucher measure, said that while he has heard some objections to the testing requirements, he also believes those standards will build confidence in the program. Creating a “functioning market” for school choice requires that parents be given “quality, transparent” data, he argued.

“You will have customers who will be able to choose among options and who will be presented with the information to choose,” Mr. Enlow said.

Glenn Tebbe, the executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the church in Indiana, said that while there were concerns among Catholic school officials about being told “how to operate,” most did not regard the state’s testing requirements as onerous.

“We’re willing to provide evidence, in a reasonable way, of the contributions we make to society,” Mr. Tebbe said.

Many Catholic schools across the country have struggled financially with declining enrollment, and Indiana Catholic schools face the same challenges, Mr. Tebbe said. He estimates that there are about 200 Catholic schools in the state today, the majority of which are located in the state’s most-populated cities and towns. Many middle- and lower-middle-class families face some of the same barriers that poor families do in covering Catholic school tuition, he said. The law will help both the institutions and the families.

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“We’re struggling to make it affordable to families,” Mr. Tebbe said, as “parents are trying to meet their obligations. We’re trying to find a midpoint.”

Others question the logic behind the voucher program, particularly as public schools have been asked to make sacrifices in their budgets. Indiana, which has a total two-year budget of $28 billion, kept K-12 funding level, at about $6.5 billion, in calendar year 2011, according to the state budget office, though the state officials recently agreed to pump $150 more into schools over the next spending cycle. But school funding was cut by nearly $300 million the previous year, reductions that resulted in layoff and other reductions, said Nate Schnellenberger, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, a 45,000-member union that opposed the voucher measure.

The voucher law will take money from the public system “and give it to private schools,” Mr. Schnellenberger said.

Voucher laws have faced legal challenges in numerous states, often on the grounds that they violate provisions in state constitutions that prevent public money from supporting religious schools or institutions. Mr. Schnellenberger said the ISTA is evaluating the legality of the Indiana law and whether to support efforts to challenge it.

Political Reaction

But many of the questions about the sweeping package of Indiana laws focus on their political, rather than their legal, implications.

Mr. Daniels, 62, has said he is considering entering the 2012 presidential race to challenge President Barack Obama, though he had not announced a decision as of this week. A former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, he has touted his record as a fiscal conservative since winning election as Indiana’s governor in 2004. He has also argued that major changes in education are necessary to create a more qualified workforce in his state and around the country.

A number of observers outside Indiana expect that debates over the nation’s fragile economic recovery—not education—will dominate the next presidential campaign. But they also say that Mr. Daniels’ and other Republican leaders’ support for new voucher programs represents one of the sharpest policy divides between the GOP and the president—one that will probably receive considerable attention, no matter who challenges Mr. Obama.

The president has supported charter schools, merit pay, improved student data systems, and other education policies that have won him praise from many Republicans, including Mr. Daniels. But Mr. Obama has opposed school vouchers, a longtime centerpiece of GOP school-policy platforms. And he and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have spoken out against efforts to strip public workers’ collective bargaining rights, calling for negotiation between labor and management.

Phil Handy, a former top education adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the idea of expanding private-school choice will appeal to many voters, particularly independents. Mr. Handy, who also served on Florida’s state board of education, is advising former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said he is running for president in 2012.

“Rich people have the choice” whether to send their children to public or private schools, Mr. Handy said. “Why shouldn’t people of all means have that choice?” The message to voters, he said, will be that “we’re talking about educating kids—not protecting the system.”

But Mr. Schnellenberger, of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said he does not believe the public is sympathetic to the idea of public dollars covering middle-income families’ costs for private education.

“My wife and I could afford to send our kids to private schools, if we so chose,” he said. “But I [wouldn’t] expect the state of Indiana to subsidize that decision.”

Teachers’ unions have traditionally been major Democratic Party supporters during federal and state elections. To the extent that the Obama administration has rankled teachers through its positions on merit pay, charter, and other issues, Republican policies on vouchers—whether the nominee is Mr. Daniels or someone else—could galvanize support behind Mr. Obama, said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.

Economic and educational issues are likely to intersect in several ways during the 2012 race, Mr. Manna predicted. Candidates in both parties are almost certain to argue that improving schools is crucial to the nation’s continued job growth and prosperity, he said, though they’re likely to differ on the amount of public resources that should be devoted to education.

The ongoing financial pressures on states and school districts could accentuate the debate over vouchers, he added.

Democrats are likely to respond to efforts to channel public money to private schools by arguing, “We can’t afford it,” Mr. Manna said. Republicans, he said, could make the opposite case: “The middle class has had it tough during these times,” and when it comes to private school choice, “why can’t they benefit?

Vol. 30, Issue 31

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