Education policy: What would the Indiana House Republicans do?

It seems likely that Indiana is about to enter a period of one-party rule. What might that look like? A legislative agenda announced recently by House Republicans should provide some clues.

When it comes to education policy, there don’t appear to be a lot of surprises.

The caucus divides its proposals for the 2011 session into three categories: “reward quality teachers,” “focus education dollars on the classroom” and “expand educational options for Hoosier families.”

The first includes allowing merit pay for teachers, providing bonus pay for teachers who pass a competency test, linking compensation to test scores, and addressing “high performance teachers in layoff situations” – which presumably means basing teacher layoffs on something other than seniority.

The second includes giving incentives to school corporations to reduce the cost of employee benefits. Note that’s incentives, not mandates.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this topic since July, when the State Budget Agency released a report that suggested schools and universities could save $450 million a year by joining the state employee health plan. But the report said that most of the savings would come from making benefits less generous – in other words, by taking money out of the pockets of teachers and other school employees. And a competing study for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents concluded that joining the state health plan would in fact cost schools $156 million.

The House Republicans would encourage schools to join consortia, trusts or the state employee plan if they can realize savings by doing so. They also suggest incentives for consumer-driven options, such as health savings accounts, and for opening site-based medical clinics – something the Monroe County Community School Corp. is already about to do.

The Republicans’ ideas for expanding options include lifting the cap on the number of charter schools in Indiana and letting more entities sponsor charter schools, possibly private colleges or mayors of cities in addition to Indianapolis. They also would expand “virtual charter schools” – basically taxpayer-supported home schooling.

The agenda also includes supporting private education by giving students grants to leave “failing” public schools and expanding the tax credit for contributing to private-school scholarships.

Republicans will control the Indiana governor’s office at least until Mitch Daniels leaves office in January 2013. They will have a lock on the state Senate until … let’s just say forever. Democrats now control the Indiana House, 52-48, but that’s likely to change with the November elections. If the Republicans can turn over three House seats, they can do pretty much what they want.

But their education proposals don’t seem all that radical. They’re a mix of the “performance-based” reforms that are being debated all over the country and the “privatization lite” that Indiana Republicans and the state Chamber of Commerce have pushed for years.

This is surprising, especially when you notice that the House Republicans have gone all Tea Party on such topics as immigration (Do what Arizona does!) and federal-state relations (Oppose socialized medicine!).

On the other hand, when you might actually have to govern, it’s hard to draw up and stick to an extreme education agenda. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you eventually have to go back home and face the voters – including the superintendents, teachers and, especially, parents, who just want you to do what’s right for the local schools.

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