Indiana Lawmakers Propose ‘Dramatic’ School Reforms

Published February 14, 2011

Indiana Democrats are balking at votes on several labor and school reform bills winding through the state legislature. Despite a walkout, in which some House members reportedly fled to adjacent Illinois, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) say they remain optimistic the proposals will pass even with looming legislative deadlines.

The charter school expansion passed the Indiana House 59 to 37 on February 9, to angry demonstrations from teachers’ unions and only one yes vote from a Democrat. HB 1002 is in committee in the Republican-controlled state Senate, where it is expected to pass and receive Daniels’ signature. Republicans hold a supermajority in the senate.

But House Democrats have vowed to boycott legislative sessions, citing objections to 11 bills, including those on the budget, school vouchers, and collective bargaining rights for teachers unions.

Along with the vouchers and collective bargaining bills, Bosma has introduced or cosponsored several pieces of legislation to streamline charter applications, introduce a Parent Trigger to transform persistently failing schools, provide early high school graduation options, and implement merit-based pay.

“If successful, this reform package will be one of the most revolutionary in the country,” Bosma said before stepping into an Indiana town hall meeting. He said his coalition hopes to “catapult Indiana to the top of the education reform ladder.”

‘Down to the Wire’
There may be plenty of competition for that position, however, as many newly elected conservative lawmakers are planning education and budget overhauls in other states such as Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ohio.

In Indiana, Daniels made education reform the focal point of his January 11 State of the State address, spending more than half his speech advocating “major change[s] in our system of education” to secure the state’s economic future.

“[Gov. Daniels] is intimately aware of this legislation and has been working extensively with the House leadership on these bills,” said Scott Jenkins, the governor’s education policy director. However, he added, “Most of these things will probably come down to the wire.”

Charters Gain Traction
For decades, Bosma said, Indiana school choice advocates have found little traction because of union-influenced opposition. The reformers could only manage “nibbling around the edges of school reform” by defending a pilot charter school program and a scholarship tax credit, going into special session in 2009 to defend them.

Democratic education committee members suggested some 30 amendments to the charter school expansion, “most of which would have gutted the bill,” Bosma said.

“It’s very difficult to change the discussion from protecting a system to focusing on children,” Bosma said. “Any time there’s dramatic change, there is dramatic resistance, so I am sure there will be plenty of that.”

If school reform cannot be done in Indiana this year, Bosma added, “there simply won’t be another time.”

Changing the Dialogue
The Indiana bills are among the most extensive of the many education reforms being offered in statehouses around the country.

“All these bills are out there to put the interests of kids ahead of the interests of adults,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis. “That changes the conversation, and that change in dialogue will change the public schools.”

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