Flight of Indiana House Democrats May Preclude ‘Dramatic’ School Reforms

Published March 30, 2011

On their way out of Indiana, 38 House Democrats fleeing to prevent quorum in the newly Republican-controlled statehouse knocked an ambitious set of school reforms into limbo.

Republican legislators previously enthused about the chance to pass bills they campaigned on wait, unable to legislate until enough Democrats return. If they stay away past April 29, the end of session, all pending legislation, including the state budget, will be halted. That’s 601 Senate bills and 608 House bills.

An ambitious school reform package increasing charters, offering vouchers to low-income students, introducing some merit pay, and more, intended to shoot Indiana “to the top of the education reform ladder,” as Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma phrased it in February, has been trampled beneath Democratic outrage initially sparked by a right-to-work bill.  

Three Bills At Issue
“The reforms on the table right now really expand the opportunities for parents to find the right educational fit for their students,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations at the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis. “If that’s blocked, as it is, those parents and students lose.”

Democrats earned just 36 percent of the vote for the state’s House of Representatives in 2010. The election gave Republicans a majority in both chambers and a second term to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. Although the Republicans quickly withdrew the right-to-work bill, the Democratic caucus says members will remain in an Urbana, Illinois, Comfort Suites hotel as “long as it takes” to get what they want. They are essentially holding state business hostage over three bills they describe as “anti-worker” and lack the votes to defeat, Hiner says.

“It’s accurate to say that this action by [the Democratic] legislators is dramatic and hampers the legislature from doing its duty for the public,” Hiner said. “Any time the legislature is held up like this, there is less time to hear from citizens and debate the measures.”

Hoosier legislators aren’t the only ones fleeing their state to forestall legislative action. The Indiana Democrats left the state on February 22 after a similar flight by Wisconsin Democrats five days earlier over curbs to collective bargaining proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker (R). Republicans used a procedural move to pass the measure, and Walker signed the bill on March 12.

‘Never Seen a Session This Strange’
Walkouts to prevent quorum happened occasionally in America in the 19th century, especially during periods of high populist influence. The practice has hardly been seen since the early 1900s until recently. In 2003, 11 Democratic state senators from Texas left the state to protest a redistricting bill.

Though the right-to-work legislation and 26 other bills have already expired, Indiana’s missing legislators remain in Illinois. The Democratic Party has said it is paying the legislators’ expenses and the $250 daily fine Bosma has imposed on missing representatives.

“I’ve been around a lot of sessions and I’ve never seen a session this strange,” said Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. “[The Democratic] caucus has made a huge effort to tie the issues of education and labor together.”

If the legislators do not return by session’s end, Gov. Daniels says he will repeatedly call special sessions until the state’s business gets done. Because of Indiana’s budget cycle and its two-term limit on governors, this is the last time the legendary cost-cutting governor, known as “the Blade,” can sign an Indiana budget.

Theoretically, Hiner said, the standoff could continue until the 2012 elections.

Vouchers, Charters at Issue
 “The conversation has to switch from what’s best for institutions to what’s best for children,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. “If kids are left in places where they’re not successful for consecutive years, the chances of them being successful [in life] are minimized.”

The education bills at issue would offer vouchers low-income children could take outside the public education system, raise public charter school funding closer to traditional public school funding, and tie school transportation funds to the child (so charter students could share or borrow buses from public schools).

The charter school expansion bill would also permit charter schools to move into old, unused public school buildings if they chose. The facilities and transportation issues are sticking points for Democrats, Simnick said.

Democrats also charge granting vouchers to poor kids would deprive local public schools of funds. Elcesser points out private schools currently have only about 2 percent of classroom space available to students who would apply for a transfer from public schools.

‘Not Quality, But Fit’
At present, 3,500 Indiana students are on charter school waiting lists, Simnick said.

“Sometimes it’s not even about [school] quality; it’s about fit,” Elcesser said. “If you have a variety of options and education programs and different school cultures that families can choose from, then the chances of having them find the best fit for their son or daughter are higher.”

Only one school reform bill, the charter school expansion, passed the Indiana House before the Democrats left the state. HB 1002 is currently pending before a state Senate committee. The Senate version of the bill would need to be reconciled with the House before going to the governor.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

Internet Info:
Indiana’s Adequate Yearly Progress reports: http://www.doe.in.gov/ayp/

The bills proposed in the current Indiana legislative session: http://www.in.gov/apps/lsa/session/billwatch/billinfo?year=2011&session=1&request=all