Governor’s education agenda includes vouchers

Gov. Mitch Daniels released more details of his Indiana education agenda Wednesday, but said he's still working on specifics of some proposals, including using state money to help students attend private schools and giving them college scholarships if they graduate high school a year early.

Daniels and fellow Republican State Superintendent Tony Bennett pitched their ideas to Indiana's Education Roundtable on Wednesday. They told the group of education and business leaders that teachers should be evaluated based on student performance and said the early graduation scholarship could help some families. Roundtable members generally agreed with the proposals, though many raised questions about how they would work.

"The devil's in the details," said Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson.

Daniels acknowledged after the meeting that the issues are complex and that the details haven't been finalized yet. But he said that was no reason to shelve the proposals.

"The fact that it's complicated cannot be an excuse for inaction that fails our children," Daniels said. "The fact that it won't be perfect, because it won't, will not be an excuse for inaction."

Daniels and Bennett didn't mention controversial private school vouchers until talking with reporters after the Roundtable meeting. Daniels said his agenda will include a bill to allow state money to go to private schools to help low-income students attend. He said he hasn't firmed up details, including what income level would be required to qualify for vouchers.

Democrats and public school advocates have opposed vouchers in the past, saying they erode public schools by sending state funds outside the system. But Republicans, who now control both the House and Senate, have said that students who don't come from wealthy families should have the same opportunity to attend private schools as those who do.

Daniels said he didn't discuss his voucher proposal in the Roundtable meeting because he wanted to focus on two key aspects of his education agenda: the early graduation scholarship and changing the way teachers are evaluated and compensated.

Bennett and Daniels said teachers should be evaluated and rewarded using student academic achievement, not simply seniority. They said local school districts should be free to set their own evaluation and pay measures, but that the state should set some guidelines. Bennett said he hopes student achievement counts for at least half of a teacher's evaluation.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said teachers are concerned about some of the proposed changes and want to make sure evaluations are fair and consistent. The Roundtable endorsed a resolution saying that teacher evaluations and pay should include student academic achievement as well as content knowledge, instructional skill and other factors.

The group also endorsed a resolution saying Indiana should allow students to graduate a year early to pursue college, and that the state money that would have gone to their high school during senior year should instead be used to offset college costs. However, several Roundtable members raised questions about the proposal and abstained from voting on the resolution.

Some said giving students scholarships if they graduate early could spur some of those taking advanced placement or dual credit classes in high school to choose a head start on college instead. They said having fewer students in those classes would make it difficult for high schools to continue offering them.

Others wondered if only students from poor families should qualify, and whether students as young as 16 were mature enough to handle college life.

Daniels said he would leave it up to families to decide whether their students are mature enough. He said he welcomed other questions and comments about the early graduation proposal and the rest of the agenda.

Bennett and Daniels said their agenda items would be put into separate legislative bills during the 2011 session of the General Assembly, which starts Jan. 5, because the changes could be too complex to handle in one bill. Schnellenberger said teachers want to be a part of the process.

"There's a lot of teachers who have a lot of good ideas," he said. "The concern is that things will be on the fast track and they won't have the opportunity to have their concerns listened to."

Republican education committee chairmen in the House and Senate pledged to gather input from everyone involved in hearings on the proposals.

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