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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Gov. Mitch Daniels, Uber-Wonk, on Indiana’s Ed Reforms

By Rick Hess — May 05, 2011 4 min read
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Yesterday, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels gave an education speech to a packed house at AEI that included CNN, C-SPAN, and a slew of breathless political press (they were hoping he’d signal whether he’s going to run for President). You can watch the speech, and check out an interview by AEI’s Nick Schulz, here.

I actually had to miss the talk because, after having extended the invitation, turned out I had to be on the road in Jacksonville yesterday. Ah, well. Brief aside: I was intrigued by the opportunities around the 120,000 student Duval County system. Jacksonville finished fifth last year in our study of America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, and, up close, I could see why. Engaged civic leadership, an impressive public education fund, some serious local philanthropists, thoughtful district leadership wrestling with a wave of new legislation, and a district pursuing partnerships on a number of fronts. Reformers, entrepreneurs, and funders really ought to be giving Duval a good look, if they haven’t yet.

Anyway, back to Daniels. The best take on his remarks was probably that offered by my AEI colleague Andrew Kelly, who noted that Daniels eschewed bombast in favor of the serious-minded, wonky, “roll-up-his-sleeves” demeanor that has got many hoping he’ll make a run for the Republican nomination. (Andrew, rightly I think, contrasted Daniels’ approach with the antics of the manifestly unserious Sarah Palin.)

Daniels discussed the reforms he’s championed in the Hoosier State. This past legislative session he had a slew of big wins, racking up the most significant series of education reforms by an education governor in a decade or more. Indiana enacted legislation establishing the state’s first school voucher program, expanding the number of charter school authorizers in the state, overhauling teacher evaluation, abolishing “last hired, first fired” staffing requirements, and prohibiting teacher collective bargaining agreements from including anything except salaries and benefits.

With the aid of the uber-wonk’s inevitable power point, Daniels addressed these measures in his characteristically thoughtful, low-key manner. He said, “I don’t have magic answers. If I did I would have been here giving this talk years ago.” He said his efforts had focused on three buckets of reform: addressing teacher quality, administrator flexibility, and greater choices for families. He saw the four education reform bills the legislature passed as “a mutually reinforcing whole.”

Like many Republican governors, Daniels has moved aggressively on collective bargaining, though his approach and language have been characteristically tempered. “Collective bargaining has its rightful place,” Daniels said, “Always will.” But he also argued that, “Leadership in Indiana--the principals, the school boards, the superintendents that we’re determined to hold accountable for student growth--have been hamstrung and prevented from doing that in a myriad of ways, many of them stemming from the contracts that their school boards have signed with local teachers unions.” Daniels noted that some of the state’s contracts dictated what color the teachers’ lounge could be painted or the humidity level in the classroom, limited the exact number of hours a teacher would spend with students, and required teachers to get several days advance notice before their principal could observe their classroom.

In a bipartisan nod, Daniels tipped his hat to President Obama and Ed Secretary Arne Duncan. He saluted their efforts when it comes to turning around failing schools and said that Race to the Top, as a one-time competition, helped to jar complacent states and school systems into adopting reforms.

On school choice, Daniels criticized “a regime that attempted to choke the charter school infant in its cradle” and touted his legislation boosting the number of charter authorizers. He noted that private universities can now be authorizers, thus "[giving] birth to a new educational opportunity somewhere in their vicinity.” The new voucher legislation makes Indiana “the first state of universal, private-school choice...available in all places to all citizens.”

Daniels said that about 60 percent of Indiana families will be eligible for a voucher covering 90 percent of per pupil public education costs. Daniels indicated that this amount would fully cover tuition at any elementary or middle private school in the state. To be eligible for the voucher, a child must first spend two semesters in a public school. “If the public school delivers and succeeds, no one will seek to exercise this choice,” Daniels said. “But neither will we incarcerate any family’s kid in a school that they don’t believe is working having tried it for at least one full year.” Daniels offered a pragmatic but hopeful view of school choice. The vast majority of students will likely remain in traditional district schools, he said, but “in the lives of those...1 or 2 or 3 or 5 percent of all our kids, [the choice] may mean everything.”

Indiana has escaped much of the fiscal crunch with which most states are wrestling, because of Daniels disciplined stewardship over the past six years. Now Daniels has turned his energy to education, with remarkable success. Whether he opts to run for the GOP nomination or not, it’ll be intriguing to see what he tackles next.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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