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Mitch Daniels: Education Reformer

10:25 AM, May 3, 2011 • By RYAN STREETER
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He has been the subject of ongoing 2012 presidential speculation. His fiscal fortitude in Indiana has been widely covered, and his controversial “truce” remarks on social issues have sparked heated debate. But to date, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has received very little national exposure for his most important policy initiative: taking Indiana from the backwaters of education reform in America to the forefront.

MitchDaniels

Jeb Bush has rightfully earned the reputation as America’s most reform-minded governor on education issues. He introduced vouchers for students in failing schools, created greater accountability within the system, and based teacher pay on merit. His achievements have set the standard for subsequent would-be reformers such as Daniels.

But now Indiana’s governor aims to go beyond Bush. The other week, Indiana’s legislature passed the last of four bills that Daniels has been advocating for awhile in his effort to make Indiana the vanguard of education reform in America. Once implemented, his education agenda will be the most expansive school reform effort the country has seen.

Indiana’s reforms are similar in many respects to Florida’s focus on accountability, high standards, school choice, and teacher performance.

The Daniels reforms go beyond the Florida experiment, however, in two important areas: institutionalizing choice for families and establishing classroom-level performance as the key metric for schools. On the first point, Indiana has conceived choice more universally than was the case in Florida. On the second point, Indiana’s policy is close to Florida’s, but the Hoosiers have been able to go farther by overcoming political barriers that tripped up Florida’s reformers.

Institutionalizing choice. Typically, when one hears the word “choice” in an education reform context, one thinks “vouchers.” And while vouchers are indeed a centerpiece of the Daniels agenda, they represent only one essential component among several. The Indiana approach to choice is more properly understood as giving families educational options in the broadest, most universal sense.

In 2010, the state made it possible for students to transfer from one public school district to another. This set the stage for further reforms aimed at making families’ choices, not school districts, the main unit of education policy. Indiana’s new education laws build upon this emphasis on mobility and family intent.

·      Vouchers according to need, not school status. Before it was struck down by the Florida supreme court in 2006, Bush created the nation’s first statewide voucher program for students in failing schools. Daniels’s plan makes vouchers available to all students within specific income ranges, not just those in bad schools. It is the broadest voucher framework in the nation, aimed at both low income and lower middle class students. Linking the vouchers to family income rather than school performance infuses competition into the heart of Indiana’s school system and sets the stage for all the other reforms.

·      Vouchers on a universal basis. The number of vouchers is capped at 7,500 for the first year, raised to 15,000 the following year, and then unlimited thereafter. This allows an appropriate phase-in period while ultimately aiming at universal support for qualifying families. 

·      A pro-college-prep funding model. Families that choose to transfer their children from a public to a private school receive $4,500 per child in K-8, but no limit on tuition for high school so long as the family meets the means-testing requirements. This helps those who can get into high quality prep schools but cannot afford the gap between tuition and the voucher amount.

·      Expanding charters with greater parent empowerment and heightened accountability. Thousands of students are on waiting lists for Indiana’s 60 charter schools. Daniels’s reforms make it easier to start charters and increase the number of charter sponsors. They also install a “trigger” by which parents can convert failing schools into charter schools. Funding will follow the student rather than stay in a given school district. These reforms ultimately produce a vibrant marketplace aimed at disrupting the public school system’s monopoly.

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