Opinion and Forefront

SOUDER: The real education message sent by voters

January 5, 2013

Mark SouderLiberals, at least those aligned with the Indiana teachers’ union, have been creatively interpreting the victory of Glenda Ritz as a rejection of innovative education and a call to return to the old systems of exclusive trust in the educational establishment.

Ritz’s victory was not exactly compelling. If you polled Indiana voters, “Ritz” would be associated with the word “cracker” in 99 percent of the cases. The same wouldn’t be true, for example, of the word “coats.” So first let’s just acknowledge that Bennett lost rather than Ritz won, and stuff all the elaborate claims to victory.

Compare Joe Donnelly’s victory to Ritz’s win. He didn’t just attack Richard Mourdock. He juxtaposed his style and views with Mourdock’s, which burned the contrast into Hoosier minds. With the Republican splits and Sen. Lugar increasingly showing his age, Donnelly might have beaten Lugar as well, regardless of all the pundit spins.

Ritz was lucky. Donnelly got a big break on the way to a significant win. Had control of the Senate not been an issue, Donnelly might have won by as many as 20 points.

Gov.-elect Mike Pence made education a centerpiece of his win. Both the Indiana House and Senate have veto-proof majorities. Their positions on education have been clear. Claims about “Hoosier voters” giving a mandate for Ritz’s views have no credibility.

I participated in writing No Child Left Behind, having served on the education full committee and both education subcommittees during the passage of every major piece of education legislation since 1995. Gridlock has blocked major legislation since my departure from Congress.

I opposed national testing vehemently, but did not prevail once it became a centerpiece of President Bush’s proposal (we blocked it for six years while Bill Clinton was president).

Tests are at the core of the debate. They provide standard measurements that can be used across school districts and states to assess whether taxpayer funds are being wisely spent. Those schools that fail to meet minimal standards of expectations after five years are deemed to have “failed,” which enables parents to make choices. The Legislature expanded this concept with state funds.

My ideological side resisted the government straitjacket of tests, which will control curriculum. My MBA side said that, once we’ve broken the constitutional barrier that education can include federal funds, some accountability is justified.

While I voted against the legislation all the way to the final House-Senate conference report, I eventually voted for it in appreciation for House Education Chairman John Boehner’s accepting and holding so many of the amendments I had advocated.

No Child Left Behind has achieved many of the education performance goals it sought by forcing public school changes (fear of losing students) to fresh education strategies offered by public charter and private choices.

The rejection of Bennett highlighted that some changes are needed. For example, it was evident from the beginning that adjustments were going to be needed to the definition of “failing” schools, as even over-performing, low-income schools hit a wall regarding “continuous improvement.” When high percentages of students speak English as a second language or are special-needs, there will be a success cap that normally cannot be exceeded.

Voters in Indiana and the nation do not like leaders who seem inflexible. They want some change in how things are done, but it is continued innovation, flexibility and choice that will advance education here in Indiana and America, not reverting back to old models of evaluating “process” as opposed to “results.”•

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Souder, a former business owner and Republican representative of the 4th Congressional District, is a political commentator living in Fort Wayne. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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