Mitch Daniels Sees “Tectonic Shift” on Education in States

By Sean Cavanagh — February 27, 2012 3 min read
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The nation’s governors are scheduled to head to the White House today, a visit that caps a weekend of policy talk, seasoned with heavy doses of election-year political intrigue.

One attendee at the National Governors Association’s winter meeting who attracted a phalanx of reporters was Republican Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who once again asserted that he has no interest in jumping into the GOP presidential race, as some in his party seem to hope.

Presidential politics aside, Daniels has made a name in education policy circles for his state’s approval of sweeping changes to its schools—which include a dramatic expansion of private school vouchers, charter school growth, and new forms of teacher evaluation. Many Republican governors were successful in pushing similiar conservative agendas. (Though some, like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have faced a political backlash over measures aimed at weakening teachers’ collective bargaining powers.)

In an interview with Education Week at the NGA meeting, Daniels said the GOP’s successful statehouse push on education—which followed the Republican wave in the 2010 election—coincided with political and public support coalescing around a cluster of key issues.

“Clearly, one factor is more legislators are free from the iron grip of the education establishment, which is not just the unions but the whole complex of [the] educational compass,” he said. “But at least as large a factor is the tectonic shift in the national thinking about this.”

Daniels credited the Obama administration with challenging teachers’ unions by backing tougher forms of teacher evaluation, as well as charter school growth. But he also acknowledged that the Democratic president has disagreed with Republicans on other issues, such as private-school vouchers. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have also criticized Republicans for not working more cooperatively with unions on education policy. Obama said last year that Walker’s proposal seemed like “an assault on unions.”

“There’s just been an unmistakable awareness in non-Republican circles—those are the ones that matter most—that what we’ve been doing these last several decades is not working,” Daniels said. “More and more people have kind of resolved their cognitive dissonance ... [which] has been, you want to believe you’re acting in the interest of children, but you’re confronting deeply vested interests that are not delivering for kids.”

Even on private school vouchers, Daniels said he sees support building among African-American school advocates for his state’s approach. “You can tell there’s a big shift in favor of these changes,” he said.

Daniels said he understood the wariness among some in his party about federal encroachment in state education policy, through measures such as the federal stimulus package, which funded the Race to the Top competition and devoted billions of dollars in emergency aid to schools to save jobs and programs. But he also said the Obama administration had helped shift the political landscape on education.

“To me, their most important contribution is not the money,” the governor said. "[I]t’s really, simply their willingness to take what I consider to be aggressive positions on these questions and to irritate political allies that I think has mattered most. ... If somebody produced a study—and somebody might—that said that the money and all of this really didn’t make much difference, it wouldn’t change my position that they’ve really done a good thing. They helped make a broader set of reforms respectable among a wider group of people.”

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