Education advocates told hundreds of cheering supporters at a Statehouse rally Wednesday that Indiana could lead the nation in overhauling schools as Republicans push a sweeping agenda that includes the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers.
"We have the opportunity in Indiana today for this state to be leading the charge across the rest of the nation," said Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools who was featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." "Indiana can be at the forefront of education reform."
Rhee has become a nationwide figure on education reform, and last year she founded StudentsFirst, an organization that promotes eliminating teacher tenure and implementing merit pay to reward the most effective teachers. She was the subject of headlines recently when a USA Today investigation found some high-scoring schools touted by Rhee had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests.
Rhee said she is a Democrat who initially opposed private school vouchers, but was moved when parents came to her as chancellor looking for good public schools. Rhee said she didn't want to deny families a good education in a private school if there wasn't a slot in a good public school — one she would feel comfortable sending her own two children to.
"I was not going to look that mother and that child in the eye and say, 'Just give me five years. Take one for the team. Just wait it out until the system gets better,'" she told the cheering crowd. "That's not an answer that I would accept as a mother."
Republican leaders who control the House and Senate also spoke at the rally, and GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels sent comments by video because he was out of town. The school proposals they're pushing have sparked partisan fights and spurred a five-week walkcott by House Democrats that ended this week, but Republicans — empowered by 2010 election victories — vowed to keep fighting for the bills until they are approved.
"We will be working every single moment from now until success comes to see that 2011 is the year that kids break through and that reform breaks through for the state of Indiana," Daniels said.
Peter Groff, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said proposals in Indiana could launch the state into the top tier of states when it comes to charter school legislation.
"The nation is watching you," Groff said.
Among the proposals the General Assembly is considering this year are bills that aim to:
— Create the nation's most expansive voucher program. A controversial bill that cleared the GOP-led House in a 56-42 vote Wednesday would use taxpayer money to help parents move their children from public schools to private schools. The program is based on an income scale, with families of four making up to about $60,000 a year qualifying. The program has enrollment limits for its first two years.
— Expand charter schools. A bill pending in the Republican-ruled Senate would allow more entities to authorize charter schools and allows charter schools, which are public schools free of many state regulations, to cheaply buy unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations.
— Restrict teacher collective bargaining. A bill that has cleared the Senate would limit collective bargaining agreements between local districts and teachers' unions to only wages and wage-related benefits.
— Implement merit pay for teachers. A bill that has already passed the Senate would require student achievement to account for part of teacher evaluations, and teachers who don't do well wouldn't get automatic pay raises.
Republican lawmakers hold strong majorities in the House and Senate and the proposals are expected to pass in some form. But there's been plenty of opposition from Democrats, teachers unions and others who say the agenda will siphon money away from and erode the quality of public schools. Earlier this year, more than 1,000 teachers rallied at the Statehouse to oppose the proposals.
"Private school advocates are entitled to have their day and their say at the Statehouse, but public school parents, teachers and supporters have already made their voices known throughout this session," said Joel Hand, executive director of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said proposal supporters are only telling one part of the story.
"The objective of self-proclaimed 'reformers' is to siphon resources away from public schools and divert them to private and religious institutions," he said in a statement.
Republicans and others who back the bills told those at the rally that it was refreshing to see a supportive crowd. Parents and students chanted "Ed Reform Rocks!" and held signs saying "Choice means hope" and "Our kids, our choice."
"It is finally so nice to have some friends here," said Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association.
Suzanne Close, who came to the rally with her two children from Brazil, said families who can't afford to live in a good school district or afford private school tuition shouldn't be stuck with an underperforming school.
"Parents should have the right to choose," Close said.