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Vouchers to Evaluations, Indiana Gets Conservative Stamp

By Sean Cavanagh — May 17, 2011 7 min read
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.

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 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 in several other states have pursued similar goals, on the heels of a GOP wave in last year’s state elections. Yet Indiana’s agenda is unusually sweeping, combining policies tested in other states and new, distinctive approaches—particularly on private-school choice—that 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 in 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 from labor agreements, while requiring that certain school policy issues be discussed outside of bargaining.

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.

SOURCE: Education Week

New laws in Wisconsin and Ohio that restrict teachers’ collective bargaining powers drew massive protests and now face legal and political challenges. While Indiana’s law received less nationwide scrutiny, it was strongly opposed by teachers’ union members and Democratic state lawmakers.

Yet another measure requires that teachers be evaluated annually, judged partly on student academic gains, and that their salaries be tied to performance-based reviews, rather than just factors such as seniority.

Other new Indiana laws will provide a wider range of options for students. One measure will make it easier to sponsor charter schools, and another 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.

Most of the nation’s existing voucher programs provide public dollars for private school tuition to a relatively limited pool of students, such as those from impoverished backgrounds or those with disabilities. But Indiana’s law will allow students from middle-income backgrounds to receive vouchers: Families with incomes up to 150 percent of the federal qualifications for free or reduced-price lunch would be eligible, meaning a four-person household with an income of up to about $62,000 could get a voucher.

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 program.

Until now, all state-accredited private schools in Indiana were given a choice of participating in either the 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, students at 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—state-accredited or not—will have to participate in ISTEP. They also 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 grades at which they are accepting students on vouchers.

Additionally, all participating private schools in the voucher program 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,” Mr. Enlow said.

Many Catholic schools across the country have struggled financially with declining enrollment, and Indiana’s Catholic schools are no exception, said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the church in the state. Many middle-class families face financial barriers to attending Catholic schools, he said, and the law will help them.

“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, given the financial challenges facing Indiana’s public schools. 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 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, resulting in layoffs and other reductions, said Nate Schnellenberger, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, a 45,000-member union.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 Indiana law and whether to support a legal challenge.

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. The governor, who was elected in 2004, has touted his record as a fiscal conservative, and has argued that major changes in education are necessary to create a more qualified workforce.

Many observers predict 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 incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.

The president’s support for charter schools, merit pay, improved student data systems, and other policies has won 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 expanding private-school vouchers will appeal to many voters, particularly independents. Mr. Handy is advising former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said he is running for president in 2012.

“Rich people have the choice” of 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 ISTA, 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Vouchers to Evaluations, Indiana Gets Conservative Stamp

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