Indiana’s state Senate is poised to vote on a host of ambitious school reforms, including a voucher bill aimed at providing children from families earning up to $60,000 a year with $4,500 a year to attend the school of their choice statewide. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is expected to sign the bills as soon as they pass.
With the legislative session coming to a close, state senators are also scheduled to vote on pending legislation to expand charter schools in Indiana, along with a Parent Trigger bill allowing parents of children in failing schools to petition for reforms, which would include converting the school into a charter or giving students a voucher to attend a better-performing public or private school.
The state senate education committee on April 13 approved HB 1003, the voucher legislation, and HB 1002, a charter school bill giving parents the right to petition to convert a failing school into an independent charter, with a 51 percent majority able to institute the reform.
The same day, the House Education Committee passed SB 0001, which would reform teacher tenure rules and effectively eliminate the practice of “last-hired, first-fired.”
Rush to Finish Work
Those bills were among several pieces of legislation 38 Indiana House Democrats cited when they fled the state in February to deny majority House Republicans a quorum. Democrats refused to return unless Republicans agreed to several compromises.
Republicans eventually agreed to limit the plan to 7,500 vouchers in 2011-12 and 15,000 in 2012-13. In the third year, the caps would expire. Indiana has approximately 1 million elementary and high school students. The House passed the compromise voucher bill on March 30.
Indiana’s lawmakers assumed a conscientious attitude upon recommencing work, with the goal of clearing backed-up bills by the end of session on April 29. Still, the air about the state’s capitol has remained tense, said Leslie Hiner, vice president of government relations for the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.
“Clearly, people are very disappointed in their colleagues who took it upon themselves to flee the state, and that will have an effect on the ability of people to negotiate with each other,” said Hiner. “The trust that needs to exist as the underpinning of any negotiation is suspect.”
Despite the frayed nerves and lingering ill-will, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a budget adding new money for K-12 education while reaching a surplus of $1 billion by the end of the two-year budget cycle. The budget includes $50 million in new education funding the first year and $100 million the second year, plus money for all-day kindergarten and a proposed teacher merit pay program.
“It is very important for everyone to understand that Indiana’s reform agenda is comprehensive and interrelated,” said state Superintendent Tony Bennett. “Many people forget that comprehensive reform is an interrelated and systemic process.”
The Indiana House is also considering changes to contract negotiation for school employees, to make it easier to hire good teachers, fire bad ones, and pay good teachers more.
Currently, of about 60,000 tenured teachers, 0.62 percent are fired for incompetence in a given year, Bennett said, a “statistical impossibility.”
“Not [removing bad teachers] has done two things: affected the quality of teaching and also hurt the respectability of the profession,” Bennett said. “The bottom 5 percent has made the other 95 percent look bad.”
Bennett cited provisions in current teaching contracts to explain why the system needs change: “‘The principal shall only arrange a conference among a complaining parent, a teacher, and an administrator at the request of the teacher.’ Here’s another: ‘non-permanent teachers must be fired twice—both dismissed through provisions [established] in this contract then through the protections inside state law.’
“Are those good for kids?” he asked.
‘Some Very Big Bets’
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) is Daniels’ point man in the legislature and cosponsored several of the reform bills, including the voucher and Parent Trigger measures, along with bills to streamline charter applications, rework collective bargaining with teachers’ unions, provide early high school graduation options, and implement merit-based pay.
National school reform leaders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said the bills would “catapult Indiana to the top of the education reform ladder,” Bosma said.
Daniels has said he will decide whether to run for President after this session concludes.
“The governor sees that education in Indiana is the real rate-limiter on economic growth, so it’s the most important [legislative goal] other than we don’t raise taxes on Hoosiers,” said Scott Jenkins, Daniels’ education policy director.
Strong Interest Elsewhere
Educators and legislators in other states are watching the outcomes of these education reforms with strong interest, Hiner said.
“In my work across the country, everyone asks me about Indiana,” Hiner said.
The current reform agenda did not just pop up after the November midterms, Hiner said, but has been brewing in the state for more than 20 years. Bosma agreed, noting he authored the first charter school bill in Indiana back in 1994 but only it recently gained enough traction among constituents and other legislators to allow expansion beyond a small number.
“Our attitude was, let’s make some very big bets,” Bennett said. “Let’s bet if we make the reforms necessary for a competitive, free and flexible, and accountable education system, that education will change in this state. To see measurable results, you have to do them all.”
Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.