- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

States are a lot like stores. In both, top-level decision-making can influence whether they attract business or lose it. Understanding this, Indiana is upgrading one of its key “products,” which too often collects only dust on other states’ shelves.

This year, Indiana lawmakers made dramatic improvements to the state’s K-12 education system to empower teachers and principals, put students on a path to success, use taxpayer money more effectively and provide families with new schooling options.

One of those acts reformed collective bargaining so that only school employees’ wages and benefits can be negotiated. No more will school leaders be hamstrung by such inane contractual provisions as “faculty meetings are limited to one per month.” If principals and teachers are held accountable for school performance, it is only right to let them run those schools as they see fit.

Also, “last in, first out” was ended. Now, if teacher layoffs occur, the “last in” and oftentimes younger faculty - some of whom might be great teachers - won’t be indiscriminately fired first. Rather, they (and their principals) will be measured, compensated and retained based heavily on student learning and growth. If poor-performing schools can’t improve after five years, Indiana’s Department of Education can hire private firms to turn them around.

In addition, Indiana lawmakers created a statewide entity to authorize charter schools and lifted the cap on the number of students wanting to attend online schools - both public services. Now, Hoosiers who find traditional public schools unsuitable, will have more educational options from which to choose.

Private schools also play an important role in serving families; however, those schools typically are accessible only to parents who can afford them. In response, Indiana enacted what will be the nation’s largest school-voucher program, making nearly 60 percent of Hoosiers currently in public schools eligible for vouchers that can be used to cover private-school tuition. Passing such a large program was historic because now middle-class families will qualify for vouchers, too. Political concessions kept it from being 100 percent.

Parents already sending their kids to private schools without vouchers - while paying taxes for public schools they’re not using - will be able to receive a $1,000 tax deduction for tuition and other educational accessories. Home-school families will be eligible as well.

Recognizing that tuition also can be a burden in higher education, Indiana state leaders passed a measure allowing Hoosiers to leave high school early and use part of their senior-year public funding for public and private colleges. Why hold kids back if they’re ready to learn more and move on? That will give teachers more time to assist struggling children.

Finally, lawmakers ensured that tax dollars for education reach their intended purpose, i.e. funding students. Through something called the “de-ghoster,” Indiana school districts with declining enrollments were receiving temporary funds to ease the loss of students who weren’t even there. That would be like giving Target money for every customer it loses to Wal-Mart. It is costly and unnecessary, so lawmakers eliminated it.

How did Indiana engineer all of these major changes?

State leaders simply focused on students and their needs. In the hierarchy of whom public education is supposed to serve, somewhere along the way, students fell from first place. Faculty, programs and buildings took priority, which compromised education’s chief purpose.

Successful enterprises always concentrate first and foremost on their customers’ wants and needs. To that end, building stores and rewarding employees - although integral - are ancillary. The customers come first.

By employing these reforms and choice-based measures, Indiana is reshaping public education. After all, the best barometer of customer satisfaction is whether they’re coming or going. If other states’ leaders want to know whether their schools are meeting residents’ needs, they should open the doors and find out.

Jeff W. Reed is a state programs director with the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Milton and Rose Friedman.