Partisan divide could threaten long-term education reform

February 26, 2011
reform-15col Susan Brace of Fort Wayne holds signs during a rally at the Statehouse on Feb. 8. Teachers gathered to rally against proposed sweeping education changes.(AP Photo)

There’s little doubt Indiana’s Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately will pass the bulk of education-reform measures being pushed this year by party heavyweights including Gov. Mitch Daniels.

But continued partisan rancor surrounding the issue—despite Democratic President Obama’s efforts to bring about similar change on a national scale—could threaten the long-term prospects for a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools.

“It’s a shallow victory to not have Democrats on board,” said Larry Grau, an education policy adviser for former Gov. Frank O’Bannon who now leads a new Indiana chapter of the national group Democrats for Education Reform. “And it’s certainly a shallow victory to just pass policy for the sake of policy when you’ve not brought in the people who are going to be charged with implementing it.”

And educators have been among the most vocal opponents of the proposed changes. About 1,000 gathered along with union leaders at the Statehouse this month—waving signs with slogans such as “Rude, condescending, divisive” and chanting phrases such as “Not without a fight”—to make their stance clear.

Getting buy-in from Indiana Democrats seems unlikely given the ferocity of the opposition to proposals such as an expansion of charter schools, publicly funded vouchers for private schools, and performance-based teacher pay.

Indeed, after most of the caucus fled to Illinois on Feb. 22 in an effort to derail separate right-to-work legislation, they included the private-school vouchers and other education-reform bills among those they wanted dropped before returning so House business could resume.

Earlier this month, only one Democrat, Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan of Indianapolis, voted for the charter-school expansion. In the Senate, all 13 Democrats voted against bills that would restrict teachers’ collective bargaining and link pay to performance.

Democratic lawmakers say the proposals in Indiana are more aggressive than those supported by their peers across the country. And it’s no secret that the powerful Indiana State Teachers Association traditionally has supported more Democrats than Republicans.

Whatever the reason, the party divide could pose a risk for reform in Indiana—either with an eventual shift in political power or more immediately if the outcry complicates efforts to implement the changes.
Leading change

In Indiana and elsewhere, Republicans historically have embraced concepts such as school choice and teacher evaluations, while Democrats have supported traditional public schools.

But over the last few years, experts say, Democrats nationally have begun to shift their stance.

One watershed moment came on the eve of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, when a group of Democrats—many of them black, inner-city mayors such as Newark, N.J.’s Cory Booker—convened a meeting to discuss support for rewarding teachers based on classroom performance and expanding charters.

Those ideas were part of then-candidate Obama’s agenda. Since then, the president has implemented those initiatives through efforts such as Race to the Top, a competitive grant program rewarding states that promote charter schools, tie teacher pay to student performance, and craft plans to track student progress.

That helped spur changes at the state level, including some led by Democrats.

Legislators in Colorado, for example—where the House, Senate and Governor’s Office were controlled by Democrats—last year passed a law that made it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier for them to lose it.

New Jersey’s Republican administration also has proposed tightening tenure restrictions, and a Democratic lawmaker there has drafted a similar plan.

“Most policy folks would say we’ve not seen this much change on state policy since Race to the Top,” said Van Schoales, executive director of New York-based Education Reform Now. “Obama really has been leading this at the national level.”

In Indiana, Democrats led some of their own education reforms long before Obama began his ascent. Under O’Bannon and a Democrat-controlled House, the General Assembly passed a sweeping school accountability law in 1999. Two years later—with the same political dynamics intact—came a bill that authorized charter schools, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Greg Porter and Republican Sen. Teresa Lubbers.

But Democrats’ support came with a caveat: The bill restored the bargaining rights Indianapolis Public Schools teachers had lost in 1995. And the law enabling charters passed only after seven years of trying, with little Democratic backing.

For the most part, education issues have fallen along party lines in Indiana, with far more Republicans in the reform camp. And these days, support in the Democratic ranks is especially slim.

Sullivan, who co-authored this year’s charter-schools bill, occasionally attends legislative hearings wearing a designer pin commemorating Obama’s inauguration “to remind myself that I’m not the only Democrat supporting this,” she said.

Some reform proponents say it’s easy to explain why she might need the reminder.

In 2010, ISTA—the state’s largest teachers’ union with 45,000 members—donated about $1.1 million to campaigns from its statewide and regional political action committees. Much of that went to Statehouse races, and the lion’s share went to Democrats.

“The Indiana State Teachers Association has a lot of power,” said Bob Behning, the Republican chairman of the House’s education committee.

ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger said his group and teachers who make up its local affiliates choose candidates to back based on their record of supporting the union, a questionnaire and interviews.

But he said Democrats’ lack of support for the current legislative proposals has little to do with money


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