Gov. Mitch Daniels urged Indiana lawmakers Tuesday night to be aggressive in making sweeping changes to the state's education system, including a broad expansion of charter schools and limits on teacher union contracts.
Daniels used about half of his 30-minute State of the State speech to promote his education proposals, saying he believed there was no time for delay.
"We have waited long enough for an education system known for excellence in teaching, and accountable schools that deliver the results our kids deserve," he told a House chamber packed with lawmakers and others. "Our parents have waited long enough for the freedom to decide which school is best for their children. We cannot 'almost' end the waiting."
Top Democrats in the Legislature, however, said Daniels misplaced priorities in his speech by not talking more about job creation at a time when the state has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent.
The governor's education proposals include providing vouchers that would help some parents pay for their children to go to private schools. Opponents say vouchers would undercut public schools and blur the line between separation of church and state, but they've been supported by the governor's fellow Republicans who now control both houses of the General Assembly.
Daniels has been mentioned for months as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, but his speech didn't include any apparent White House references, and he has said he won't make any political announcements until after the Legislature wraps up its session in late April.
Daniels has said he's excited about the prospect of Indiana becoming a leader in education. If he can get his massive education agenda passed, it also would boost his reputation nationally, said Ray Scheele, co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.
"One of the major underpinnings of any governor running for president is what has that governor done for education in his or her state," Scheele said. "This is a chance for Gov. Daniels to really make his mark with a reform proposal for public education."
Daniels invited some children who were awaiting a spot in a private or charter school and their parents to attend Tuesday's speech, using them as an example of what he says is the need for greater school options.
"These children, and their parents, have waited long enough for a better chance in life," Daniels said.
Daniels, however, didn't give details on who would be eligible for the vouchers, although his administration says the plan is meant not to cost the state any more money.
He also took aim at teacher union contracts that he says go too far in setting rules beyond teacher pay and benefits.
"We must free our school leaders from all the handcuffs that reduce their ability to meet the higher expectations we now have for student achievement."
House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said he believed Daniels should have spent more time discussing the state's unemployment problems and that the Legislature should make that its top priority, given that the state has nearly 300,000 people out of work.
"They've got to recognize the problem that we don't have jobs," he said.
More than $450 million in state funding for public schools has been among spending cuts ordered by Daniels to keep the two-year budget passed in 2009 in the black.
Democrats can support some of the governor's education proposals, but the biggest problem is the state's inability to fund public schools, said Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington.
"Education reform starts with adequate funding," she said. "That means you have to put Hoosiers back to work and we have to make sure they're working at a livable wage."
The governor also renewed his call for the elimination of township government, a proposal lawmakers have rebuffed the past two years.
Daniels said lawmakers should eliminate the more than 1,000 township governments around the state and change the current three-member county board of commissioner system to a single elected county executive.
Beyond saying he wouldn't support tax increases, Daniels gave few specifics during his speech about the state budget lawmakers will craft this session. Indiana is in better financial shape than many other states, but Daniels has had to cut millions from state agencies and education.