Last December, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and state School Superintendent Tony Bennett unveiled one of the most aggressive education overhauls proposed in any state capital this legislative session. Their package of bills immediately ran into resistance from teachers' unions and suffered a setback when state Democrats fled to Illinois for five weeks to hold up a bill that restricted collective bargaining. But Daniels ended up getting what he wanted when the GOP-dominated legislature approved a sweeping packageof legislation before adjourning last week.
On Wednesday, Daniels took a victory lap at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington, DC, where he spoke about education policy to a packed audience attracted by feverish Beltway speculation over his possible presidential campaign in 2012.
"I knew that I would be either here to report on our failures or breakthroughs," he said.
The centerpiece of Daniels' education program is a bill that makes pupil vouchers available to almost all Indiana families, not just low-income ones, a development that Daniels said "will make Indiana the first state with universal private school choice."
Another bill institutes a grading system for schools and calls for annual teacher evaluations that will take students' test scores into account. Teacher pay increases and layoff decisions will now be tied to performance evaluation rather than seniority. Lawmakers also made it easier to expand charter schools and restricted teachers' collective bargaining rights to salary and benefit questions.
Daniels said he thought those changes would improve public schools so much that relatively few families would want to take advantage of the state-sponsored private school vouchers.
Daniels remained coy about his presidential ambitions, but he twice praised President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for their support for charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student performance. Even though his state failed to win any money from last year's federal Race to the Top grants, Daniels said he supported the program as well as a state-run effort to create common standards for schools.
In response to a question, the governor said he had been prepared to extend the legislative session if lawmakers had not approved his education bills. That might have put him out of the 2012 primary field. "I really thought it might become too late," he said.
Daniels is serving his second term and is prohibited from running again in 2012. Regardless of his future political ambitions, he vowed to remain active in education.
"The real test for us is yet ahead and that is to implement these changes," he said.
In that effort he is unlikely to have the support of the Indiana State Teachers' Association. "He says that his motivation is to improve student achievement, but so many of these reform measures are not aimed at improving student achievement," said ISTA President Nate Schnellenberger, according to the Associated Press
. "He wouldn't be siphoning public money from public schools if he was concerned about those students who remain in public schools."