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The Daniels record: successful innovations

by Andrea Neal
Indianapolis Star
November 5, 2012

(Second of two columns on Gov. Mitch Daniels’ legacy)

Mitch Daniels used his first term to get Indiana’s fiscal house in order. His second term sealed his reputation as the education reform governor.

“Truly historic changes” came to Indiana schools, the American Legislative Exchange Council said in its 2012 Report Card on American Education.

“Indiana moved up into the A’s for the first time after the reform-minded governor and legislature greatly improved the state charter law in 2011,” said the Center for Education Reform Report.

The Weekly Standard, a national journal of conservative thought, credited Daniels for “taking Indiana from the backwaters of education reform in America to the forefront.”

It’s a bit early to claim success. It will be several years before Hoosiers know if reforms instituted by Daniels will boost test scores. ISTEP passage rates are creeping up and graduation rates are higher, but there’s yet to be noticeable improvement on the National Assessment of Education Progress or the SAT.

Daniels took office in 2005, but his first term was consumed with budget balancing and recession, which delayed his educational initiatives until the middle of term two. Once he and School Superintendent Tony Bennett turned their sights on schools, change was fast and furious:

Collective bargaining with teachers unions was limited to wages and benefits, which means schools can pursue their own reform ideas, such as longer school days.

Teacher pay raises are now based on many factors, including student test scores, as well as the previous criteria of seniority and education. Teachers rated as ineffective can’t receive a pay increase.

The State Board of Education uses letter grades — A to F — to judge school quality instead of vague labels like commendable and academic progress. The new system take into account test scores, score improvement, graduation rates and college readiness.

There are more opportunities to open charter schools. Private non-profit universities can sponsor them, and parents with children in poorly performing public schools can demand them.

Indiana greatly expanded its school choice program, with up to 60 percent of middle- and low-income students eligible for scholarships so they can attend private schools of their choice. Indiana also offers a tax deduction for parents of up to $1,000 to help pay for education costs, such as tuition or tutoring.

Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, gives Daniels a rave review for education policy. “Most governors would be pleased just to get one of these things accomplished. Mitch Daniels, along with Dr. Tony Bennett and many courageous state legislators, accomplished them all.”

Pat Kiely of the Indiana Manufacturers Association agrees. “The 2011 session was the most dynamic with the passage of teacher performance evaluations, merit pay, charter school expansion and the largest voucher program in the country.”

As for higher education, the record is less comprehensive. Experts interviewed for this column say Daniels’ focus has been on accountability in spending and in student outcomes. They predict he will make a bigger impact on academia once he takes over as president at Purdue University.

“I believe he will be a major agent of change not only in quality and affordability but improving the communications and value of universities to other segments of the economy,” Kiely said.

Daniels will be remembered as a conservative by D. Eric Schansberg, economics professor at Indiana University Southeast, “but more important/interesting, compared to other politicians, he has been quite willing to innovate and take risks.”

Schansberg lists as examples not only K-12 ed reform but “right to work” legislation, the Major Moves infrastructure project and overhauls of welfare and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said Daniels “showed us that you can tackle tough issues/sacred cows and, if you make your case, Hoosiers will support your leadership and re-elect you.”

Indeed, they did. Daniels will hand off to his successor a balanced budget, a healthy business climate, some newly paved highways and a whole set of school reforms likely to soon bear fruit.

Neal is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Police Review Foundation.

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