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Too soon to write off 'conservative' education reform

Friday, November 23, 2012 - 12:01 am

Parents still demand improvements to schools and teachers.

Nothing like losing an election to have everybody turn on you. Indiana Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was widely hailed as the architect of the “most aggressive, far-reaching school reform package in the nation.” Now he’s on his way out after losing to Democrat Glenda Ritz, and The Associated Press remarks on “the ouster of an official widely regarded as a national champion of conservative education policy.” And the Indiana Supreme Court is being asked to invalidate the state’s voucher program, largest in the nation and “a centerpiece of a conservative education overhaul.”

Yeah, no bad public schools here. No need for reform. It’s just those silly conservatives with their wild, extremist ideas. No wonder Bennett was booted. Move along, move along, nothing to see here.

Well, let’s not say the last rites for education reform quite yet. As Indiana Policy Review Foundation adjunct scholar Andrea Neal points out, the public still wants a better education for our children, and there “should be no debate over Indiana’s commitment to improving schools and teachers.” Bennett lost because of two forces. There was strong word-of-mouth opposition by the network teachers operate here, and there was resistance from a conservative faction normally considered Bennett’s allies – people opposed to the nationalized Common Core standards that Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels surprisingly supported.

Ritz is in a peculiar position. The job of the superintendent is to implement education policy enacted by the General Assembly. But she won office opposing everything the legislature has done in recent years. And she faces a legislature with a supermajority of Republicans in both House and Senate. She is not going to have a lot to do. Well, she is doing one thing – removing her name from the lawsuit seeking the end of the voucher system, which she had joined as a school librarian and teachers union member. Give her credit for realizing there might me a conflict of interest there.

That lawsuit puts vouchers on the firing line as the first reform in danger, but there’s reason to think it might not succeed. The U.S. Supreme Court has given its approval to the use of public funds for private schooling., Yes, Indiana’s constitution could be interpreted as having a stronger “separation of church and state” provision. But it’s still true that the money goes to parents, who are the ones who decide whether or not to use it for a religious school.

Indiana’s parents have already decided – the program has doubled in size from its first year, with more than 9,000 students participating.