AEI: Implementing Indiana’s ed-reform agenda no sure thing

A new report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute raises questions about the education policies that Indiana has adopted under Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett – not whether they are good policies, but whether they’re likely to succeed.

Titled “Implementing Indiana’s ‘Putting Students First’ Agenda: Early Lessons and Potential Futures,” the policy brief highlights the gap between the top-down adoption of the policies by Republican state officials and their eventual implementation by local schools boards, superintendents and principals.

“Unless state and local implementers seize opportunities present in the law, efforts such as Putting Students First likely will prompt new rounds of compliance-oriented behavior, wasted money, bureaucratic busyness, frustrated teachers, and few or no substantive gains,” it concludes.

Authors are Rick Hess, AEI director of education policy studies; Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary; and Keenan Kelley, a William and Mary student. Hess is known as a strong supporter of what’s usually called education reform. In Indiana that’s the Daniels-Bennett agenda: an expansion of charter schools, state-funded vouchers for private schools, performance-based evaluation of teachers and limits on collective bargaining.

Even if you don’t agree with the authors’ perspective, however, the report is worth reading. A few highlights:

// “Indiana’s Republican leaders opted for wielding brute political force in passing the Putting Students First agenda in 2011,” the report says. Every Senate Democrat and all but one House Democrat voted against all four bills that made up the agenda. Now opponents are fighting in the courts – there’s a lawsuit against the voucher law, and teachers may sue if they are fired for state-mandated evaluations.

“Whether the opponents’ claims have some merit is not the important point here,” the authors write. “What is important in terms of implementation is that such persistent opposition is less likely to exist when reform packages are constructed via compromise rather than brute political force.”

// Bennett has put a high priority on implementing the changes, and he has surrounded himself with a loyal cadre of supporters. But the relatively small staff of the Department of Education is also expected to carry out “traditional compliance-oriented activities” such as managing funding and rules associated with federal programs, teachers licensing, etc. Can it do both effectively?

// A “culture of compliance” characterizes relations between the department and local schools. While school officials may claim to want more freedom and flexibility, they look to the DOE to tell them what to do. For example, state law authorizes school districts, within limits, to create their own teacher evaluation systems, but officials expect 80 percent to just adopt the model provided by the state.

// Indiana’s teacher-evaluation completely shifts what school principals are expected to do. Once it was a full-time job to run the building: to handle student discipline, take care of paperwork and scheduling, field calls from parents, do public relations, etc. “In contrast, Indiana’s new approach to teacher evaluation presumes that a principal’s key job is to be an instructional leader, helping evaluate and motivate a school’s teachers to constantly improve their craft.” Will they get training and support? And who takes on the old building-management tasks?

The AEI report is based largely on interviews with Indiana Department of Education staff and officials, including Bennett. People who think the policies are misguided don’t have a voice here. But the insider perspective, with most sources unnamed, provides interesting nuggets:

// One of Bennett’s first moves when he took office in 2009 was to fire several dozen DOE employees and recruit a bunch of youngsters to run his programs. Many people knew there were mass firings, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in print.

// The department has hired six additional attorneys to address the voucher lawsuit and other expected legal challenges to Bennett’s policies.

// DOE officials are miffed at push-back from people they thought were on their side. For example, superintendents complain about teachers’ unions but don’t exercise their authority to run schools without union interference; and some charter school operators don’t like accountability.

// Bennett is working with the State Board of Accounts to enforce the law’s limits on collective bargaining. If a school district negotiates a teacher contract that includes more than salaries and benefits, the SBA could declare it illegal. “Such a move could prevent district employees from getting paid,” the report says.

2 thoughts on “AEI: Implementing Indiana’s ed-reform agenda no sure thing

  1. On the author of this paper’s webpage at AEI, this is his conclusion about lessons learned in Indiana from this paper:

    “[W]hile much has been said about whether these new laws are good or bad, far less attention has been paid to the looming implementation challenges. The time is ripe for a serious treatment of such issues, both for Indiana policymakers, educators, and citizens and for those in other states weighing similar reform legislation.”

    Two conclusions can be made.

    1. The author must believe the the reform laws are good. Otherwise, why bother implementing them.

    2. The author is truly non-judgmental. His job was not to express an opinion on the value of the laws, only to tell the State what they have to do to enact them.

    As one who views Bennett’s policies as an attempt to privatize public education, and therefore bad for Hoosier schools, I found value in reading this comprehensive report.

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