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A Less-Publicized School Plan from Mitch Daniels

By Sean Cavanagh — May 10, 2011 2 min read
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Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been the focus of considerable hubbub in recent weeks because of his state’s approval of a sweeping, and controversial education agenda—and, oh yes, because all that business about him flirting with a presidential bid.

But lost in the clamor about Daniels’ backing of new laws on school vouchers, charter schools, and collective bargaining was his support for a measure to make major changes to school board elections around his state.

The Republican governor signed into law a measure, House Bill 1074, that will require that elections for those boards be held in the fall, rather than the spring.

The Indiana governor says spring elections lead to anemic voter turnout, and make it easier for interest groups to sway an election and stack a school board with candidates it likes. Daniels touted the new law in under-the-radar remarks at an otherwise high-profile speech that he gave last week at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington.

“Spring is when we have primaries,” the governor said, and “nobody votes. ... It’s a lot easier to dominate...the outcome and elect a school board, a friendly school board, in the sparsely attended primary elections.”

With the change,"we’ll have more of the public at least eligible, or at least on hand, to take part in these elections,” he added. “We’ll see if it makes a difference.”

Daniels did not name the interest groups he was most concerned about. But teachers’ unions have been highly critical of his agenda, particularly on vouchers and reducing teachers’ collective bargaining powers. Scott Jenkins, the education policy director for Daniels, told me that the new law is not targeting any one group, but that it’s instead meant to bring more public involvement and scrutiny to school board elections.

Consolidation of elections will also save taxpayers money, the governor’s office argues.

"[S]pring elections are notorious for very low turnout,” Jenkins said in an email. “General elections are much more representative of the community as a whole and not a particular group.”

Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said his organization stayed neutral on the legislation this time around—partly because it was fighting battles on so many other fronts—though it had opposed similiar measures in the past. He said the union did not believe the governor and lawmakers were targeting the ISTA through the measure.

We’ll see if other states see Indiana’s school boards bill as something worth replicating.

Photo courtesy of AJ Mast/Associated Press.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.