Partisan divide could threaten long-term education reform

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.
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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

and lots to do with philosophical qualms about what many in the party see as far-overreaching reforms.

Along with charter expansion, teacher evaluations and collective bargaining restrictions, Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett—also a Republican—have proposed stronger corrective measures for failing schools and publicly funded scholarships for students to attend private schools as part of an overhaul they say must be comprehensive.

“It goes way beyond reform,” Schnellenberger said. “It goes all the way to essentially trying to diminish, if not destroy, our association and unions.”

Funding cuts, tough talk

Indeed, the relationship between the unions—ISTA and the smaller Indiana Federation of Teachers—and the state Department of Education hasn’t exactly been rosy.

That was most evident last spring, when they publicly sparred over whether the unions would sign onto the state’s second proposal to get federal Race to the Top money.

Bennett had several meetings with union representatives but said he wouldn’t show them the proposals, which included things such as tying job reviews to test scores, for fear other states might steal Indiana’s ideas. He eventually dropped the application because he couldn’t get union support.

The state’s financial situation also has contributed to the difficult climate for bipartisan buy-in.

Faced with dwindling tax revenue, Daniels in December 2009 announced $300 million in emergency budget cuts for schools. Some lawmakers now worry about the consequences of expanding charters and supporting private-school vouchers without increasing overall education funding in the next two-year budget.

reform-bills-update-boxRep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said such moves would take resources from traditional public schools without moving enough students to make a meaningful dent in their operating expenses.

“The schools are struggling for funding,” Pierce said. “It’s going to increase the crisis for traditional public schools.”

Reform proponents refute that notion, saying the state should focus on paying to educate students, not fund a school system.

Teachers are not convinced. At the Feb. 6 Statehouse rally, educators and union leaders warned they would post the names of legislators who voted for the reforms on an 18,000-member strong Facebook page devoted to fighting the changes.

Brian Hawkins, a 34-year-old English teacher from Bedford, started the page with his wife, Lacy, a history teacher.

While he opposes on principle many of the reforms, he said he is most distressed by the language Daniels and Bennett have used to discuss it—phrases such as “failing schools” and “underperforming teachers,” which, to him, ring of an attack on his profession.

Hawkins, a lifelong Republican who campaigned for Daniels in 2004 and voted for Bennett in 2008, said he thinks he would have been more receptive to reforms had he not heard them described in that context.

“That kind of rhetoric has been very difficult for us,” Hawkins said. “What if teachers used the same kind of language about their students?”

Building consensus?

The negative feelings of Hawkins and other teachers could prove troublesome for a few reasons.

Even with a solid Republican majority, party leaders acknowledge their members may not move in lockstep on all education-reform issues, particularly the more controversial vouchers and collective-bargaining changes.

Republican Rep. Tim Neese of Elkhart voted against the charter schools bill because of the same funding concerns Pierce addressed. He said he doesn’t know how he’ll vote on the other proposals, but he has heard from a few hundred teachers who oppose them.

And teacher opposition could be an influential factor for the 25 newly elected lawmakers who haven’t seen the past battles over such issues.

“It’s without question that legislators of both parties are going home and hearing from some of the folks in the education community,” said Derek Redelman, vice president of education for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which supports the reforms. “School administrators, particularly in small towns, are pretty influential people. They have the biggest budget, building projects. The influence they wield is pretty broad.”

Even if Republicans pass the reforms without bipartisan support, there could be negative consequences down the road. It’s not unprecedented for a political power shift to uproot such overhauls without buy-in from both parties.

That happened, said Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, with a package of “A-Plus” education reforms passed in 1987 under Republican Gov. Bob Orr. The changes called for things such as a new school accreditation system, but Bosma said some were uprooted following Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh’s election in 1988.

“The changes are as temporal as your control unless you’ve built real support across the aisle,” said Sullivan, the state representative. “When the pendulum swings, it’s time to start undoing the things that were done that [the opposition] didn’t support.”

But Bosma, a longtime proponent of an education overhaul, said he thinks reforms will build another base of supporters: parents. Reversing the policies will be tougher if the public embraces them.

“Hopefully, the changes that are put into place and impact real families will create their own constituency,” Bosma said.

Democrats such as Grau, meanwhile, are working to avoid that problem by educating elected officials about reform in hopes of winning converts. They’re also recruiting pro-reform Democratic candidates for the 2012 election.

But some say the current dichotomy presents yet another challenge: getting reform-weary teachers to work within a new system.

Hawkins likened it to implementing Obama’s much-criticized health care overhaul.

“Anytime you have policymakers who are rushing to get reforms through but aren’t collaborating with professionals in the field,” Hawkins said, “you’re probably not going to get very good policy.”

Bennett, however, said he and his team have been unrelenting in their outreach to teachers. Since August, he’s traveled the state to meet with them in town-hall settings—taking questions, explaining proposals and listening to complaints. He has met with 6,000 teachers and his staff has met with 21,000.

Some of their input has shaped policy decisions. For instance, initially the state had intended to mandate how teachers were evaluated as part of their proposal to link pay to performance, but officials have since decided to let locals decide that.

Bennett said he thinks the meetings with teachers have had a meaningful impact on their attitudes about reform.

And even if they’re not receptive now, Bennett thinks the teachers will come around if the reforms are passed and start to show results.

“As we embark on the next level, we’re going to continue to see student performance indicators improve,” he said. “We believe the education community in Indiana will gladly embrace the things that will come their way.”•

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