The Race is On: Indiana is the new Florida, but who will be the next Indiana?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2011 legislative sessions set a new standard for K-12 reform, can 2012 hope to compare? The logical response would be something along the lines of “not bloody likely.” The electoral calendar, the fact that many of the reform states are likely to be distracted by policy implementation, and the fact that the molasses states and likely to stay in their torpor all point to a diminished of expectations for next year.

Taking a step back from questions of the pace of reform, it makes for good bloggy fun to speculate where large breakthroughs might occur.

Looking regionally, Big 10 country clearly led the way last year. Indiana engaged in incredible soup to nuts reform, with big reform undertakings in Ohio, Wisconsin and even (gasp) Illinois with tenure reform. The Minnesota legislature passed transformative reforms, but settled for some incremental steps this year. Big things are under discussion in Michigan. Iowa is discussing reform, while Pennsylvania seems to be searching for their sea legs, which I expect them to find.

By comparison to the Big Ten, the South seems stuck in neutral, outside of Florida, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Texas and North Carolina used to be reform leaders, but they faded after plucking the low-hanging fruit of reform (standardized testing). North Carolina shows some signs of rousing. Tennessee has entered into a serious discussion about reform. Reform is on like Donkey Kong in Oklahoma- special needs vouchers followed by school grading and 3rd grade retention and a tuition tax credit program.

The Northeast features some interesting dynamics in Maine, and fascinating struggle between Democrats for Education Reform and the AFT in New York. Lots of small rural schools in the northeast will eventually benefit from digital learning.

When you look out West, you see a clueless giant surrounded by more nimble neighbors. All three states bordering California-Arizona, Nevada and Oregon -have taken steps to enact reform. Yes- even Oregon! Governors Sandoval of Nevada and Martinez of New Mexico have brought a new energy to reform discussions in their states. Arizona, Utah and New Mexico have adopted A-F school grading, with Utah also passing a far-reaching digital learning bill.

Florida enacted comprehensive reform in 1999. Indiana did it in 2011.  Which states will be next? I could tell you, but then I might have to kill you. Feel free to speculate in the comments section.

12 Responses to The Race is On: Indiana is the new Florida, but who will be the next Indiana?

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Matthew,

    The repeated description of 2011 as a breakthrough year causes me to wonder what constitutes a breakthrough? What is real reform? Depending on what number one uses as denominator, less than 0.4% of K-12 school children are in tax-supported programs that let their parents opt out of traditional public schools. If charter schools are included the % is higher but still quite small. SAT and NAEP scores, and international comparisons such as recently made by Paul Peterson, et.al., suggest a continuation of (at best) mediocre K-12 achievement. I would regard a breakthrough or real reform to be associated with some notable change in results. In time, the biggest breakthrough this year might have be seen as the collective bargaining law changes in Wisconsin.

    As shown by Greg Forster, Patrick Wolf, and others, high quality research finds positive effects from various school choice programs, all of which are over-regulated and under-financed and thus only hint at the real potential of that policy. A breakthrough will occur, in my mind, when a state enacts a school choice program that is structured to maximize the near-certain benefits of truly expanded choice.

  2. matthewladner says:

    George-

    I entirely agree with you that 2011 looks good only when grading on a 1920 to 2011 curve. The average student in this country is still assigned by their zip code to a public school which is not competitive by international standards and which faces little real pressure either from above (the state) or below (through parental choice).

    The 2011 sessions didn’t do a whole lot to change that situation in the aggregate, but did in my opinion move the needle in the right direction. A growing number of states however are moving closer to a point where I think we will see real results in NAEP and elsewhere.

    Florida and now Indiana are the two states that will employing both top down and bottom up improvement strategies going forward. A number of other states are moving in that direction, but have had critical pieces missing.

    For instance, Arizona has a great deal of choice (again grading on a curve), but has suffered under a cruel joke of public school transparency system of “trophies for everyone!” If we can get A-F school grading implemented properly, the state will be on the side of identifying problems rather than concealing them for the first time in many years.

    Tony Bennett told an audience in Kansas last week that he sees collective bargaining as a critical piece of a reform package. He’s going to be grading schools and increasing options, so he also wanted to free the districts to respond.

    Do you see the same dynamic in Wisconsin?

  3. Greg Forster says:

    It’s a delicate balance to recognize and honor meaningful success when it occurs without breeding complacency or losing sight of the big picture. Both are necessary; if successes aren’t honored you get demoralization and cynicism.

    • George Mitchell says:

      Matt,

      As to the Wisconsin situation, the $6,442/pupil funding of the Milwaukee school choice program is about 50% of per pupil taxpayer support for Milwaukee public schools. Private high schools in the Milwaukee program cannot survive without substantial private fundraising. It is not clear whether or when the program will be adequately financed. Without progress in that area and a streamlining of the program’s regulatory structure it will not fulfill the potential of choice. Progress was made this year in terms of allowing some middle class families to participate.

      More broadly, Governor Walker has embarked on a public partnership with the Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop an agenda for public school improvement. Whether the Governor’s effort at cooperation will produce results remains to be seen. You can reach your own conclusion on the prospects by reading a recent fundraising letter from Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction (reprinted in full below).

      Wisconsin, as you probably know, ranks high in the Pangloss award category with respect to states that set a low bar in measuring proficiency. Not at all clear that this situation is headed for improvement; the main responsible entity is the same superintendent quoted below.

      George

      Friends and educators,

      Last week, I gave my first State of Education address [excerpts] since the state budget cut $1.7 billion from our public schools, while expanding school vouchers to wealthy families and gutting collective bargaining rights.

      I am tremendously proud of the accomplishments of our educators and our public schools, which once again lead the nation in graduation rates. However, we must continue working together to ensure all children graduate ready for college and career—and for that I need your support.

      We are nowhere near that goal when one in ten Wisconsin students drops out of high school. For Native American and Hispanic students, that number is one in four. For our African American students, one in three. Graduation gaps persist for students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students in poverty.

      High school dropouts earn less, rely more on social services, and are four times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. For their futures and ours, we must continue our fight to make Every Child a Graduate. With your help, we can make a difference.

      My agenda is simple: Education is the pathway back to middle class prosperity. To rebuild our economy and restore the American Dream, we need more than just jobs; we need family-supporting careers. And investing in public education will help get us there!

      I stood up to the attacks on education and working families throughout the budget, and I will vigorously oppose any further attempt to privatize our public schools or pay for budget shortfalls with our kids’ futures.

      To succeed we must continue to put the needs our kids first—and for that I need your help. In this volatile climate, my non-partisan office quickly has become a political target, and your donation of $100, $50 or $25 will help us fight back.

      I appreciate your continued support, and together we will stand up to special interests and ensure that Every Child in Wisconsin is a Graduate.

      Tony Evers, State Superintendent

    • George Mitchell says:

      Greg,

      You are right about the need to recognize meaningful success.

      I am not sufficiently aware of the new programs enacted this year to assess their potential. They appear to benefit a modest number of students. That does not mean they don’t represent progress.

      But, increasingly, I fear we set the bar too low. Perhaps this simply reflects political reality. But that brings me back full circle: if political reality means the best we can hope for is a few programs with limited enrollment then the progress to date is insufficient to justify some of the exuberance I observe within the school choice community.

      My own view is that K-12 education won’t experience meaningful reform until school choice is widespread. When I entered this arena in the 1980s I naively hoped for much more progress by
      now.

      George

  4. matthewladner says:

    George-

    The Indiana law will be the largest in the country in a few years. Other states have begun their experiment with choice, and many of the early adopters expanded their offerings. Plus we had all kinds of great stuff outside of the choice arena.

    I understand your feeling of frustration with the pace of reform. Personally, I have made peace with the fact that this struggle is going to outlive me despite the fact that I plan to push as hard as I can for as long as I can. I outlined the reasons why in this post:

    https://jaypgreene.com/2011/08/18/rational-optimism-on-k-12-reform/

    With regards to the $6,400 MPCP voucher, I really strongly suggest that a delegation of private school leaders get out to Yuma Arizona to see this blended learning school:

    https://jaypgreene.com/2010/05/27/the-way-of-the-future-carpe-diem/

  5. George Mitchell says:

    Matt…My observations reflect a point of view that I have held for about five years. I, too, plan to remain involved. George

  6. Greg Forster says:

    George, read my chapter in the Freedom and School Choice book and you’ll see I’m totally with you. And I’m working on another project that will keep that ball rolling.

  7. Doug says:

    Education is subject to endless bandwagons. The public will move on from the Corporate Education Reform Agenda very soon due to its almost total failure to move the needle on achievement.

    NCLB was the great conservative hope. Now it is a standing joke. Vouchers and charters are floundering from an inability to make clear improvements.

    • George Mitchell says:

      @Doug,

      You say, “Vouchers and charters are floundering from an inability to make clear improvements.”

      As for vouchers, I am aware of no public school program/policy that has been subject to the same level of random assignment, gold-standard research. That research shows modest but definite gains for students receiving vouchers. That is a “clear improvement.”

      I am not conversant with the charter research. There are many different kinds of charters and I doubt that generalizations are available as to their impact.

      As for traditional K-12 schools, we know that despite several decades of substantial growth in per pupil funding achievement levels are basically stagnant. Or, in your words, “almost [a] total failure to move the needle on achievement.”

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