At the forefront of education reform in the U.S., Indiana faces an uncertain future after its trail-blazing schools chief was ousted three weeks ago and replaced by a teachers union official.
Outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels on Wednesday cast his state as an example — and a warning — of the fierce pushback reformers should expect to encounter when challenging labor groups and the larger status quo in American education.
“Despite all of the progress that has been in states like ours, the forces of [resistance] never quit,” he said during an address to the Foundation for Excellence in Education conference, held this week in Washington. It was one of his last speeches as governor. He leaves office in January to become president of Purdue University.
Mr. Daniels and his superintendent of schools, Tony Bennett, spearheaded controversial changes in Indiana over the past two years. They became heroes in the school reform movement by pushing through a massive expansion of charter schools, the largest private school voucher program in the nation and teacher evaluations tied in part to student test scores.
Those steps and others remain popular with much of the public, but enough Indiana voters were convinced through relentless advertising and social media campaigns that Mr. Bennett represented a threat to the state’s children and had to be removed.
“On the merits, on the apparent politics, we should be good to go,” Mr. Daniels recalled telling Mr. Bennett before the election. “But you know what? The last twitch of the dinosaur’s tail can still kill you.”
The future of Mr. Daniels’ and Mr. Bennett’s work is very much in doubt as teacher and union leader Glenda Ritz assumes power in January. Reform advocates in the Hoosier State and beyond remain optimistic that the tide has turned in their favor, as more Americans realize that the nation’s education system simply isn’t good enough.
But those same advocates have seen several bitter defeats in recent months, including the rejection of some major reforms at the ballot box in Idaho earlier this month.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a rising star in the Republican Party, overcame intense pressure to remove much of the collective bargaining power from teachers in his state, but those changes were struck down by a judge earlier this fall.
The setbacks come as the Obama administration continues to support innovative reforms in state capitols as part of a larger effort to shift the nation’s education system away from the one-size-fits-all model in place for the past decade under the No Child Left Behind law.
“I have seen amazing courage at the state level,” said federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who also addressed the convention Wednesday.
He cited 46 states’ adoption of the “Common Core” academic standards — which go into effect beginning in 2014 — as the clearest example of a new spirit of change sweeping the education community.
“If we lose this moment of opportunity, I don’t know when we get it back again,” he said.
The standards lay out clear, well-defined benchmarks in English and math, and while they do not lay out national curriculums, they do outline basic facts and concepts students at each grade level are expected to understand.
Mr. Duncan and President Obama, while having little to do with Common Core, have enthusiastically embraced it.
For conservatives such as Mr. Daniels, eager to overhaul failing education systems while maintaining local control, Common Core represents a significant step forward.
“These standards are built on the work of states. This is different … states working together in this country offer a prospect of solving problems [in education] when Washington does not,” said David Coleman, president of the nonprofit College Board.