Some stumbling blocks on the road to education reform in Indiana . . . and Utah

In my last post I listed some of the educational reform measures that Indiana has adopted, including a more stringent teacher evaluation system, expansion (and more supervision) of charter schools, and a voucher program limited to low-income students. These laws put Indiana in the forefront of states seeking to transform education.

These laws were also, alas, passed without bipartisan agreement (almost no Democratic votes) and over the strong opposition of teachers’ unions.

I say alas because, as I try to impress on my government students, implementing laws well is just as important as passing good laws in the first place. The American Enterprise Institute report that I cited in my last post (link below) notes that Indiana now faces some difficult implementation challenges, in part because very important stakeholders are not on board with these reforms.

One result is that everybody’s spending a lot of time in court. The voucher program survived a court challenge (although the Supreme Court upheld vouchers a decade ago,  state constitutional challenges continue.)  As the AEI report notes:

When education reform packages pass without
consensus or bipartisan support, opponents have
greater incentives during implementation to challenge
the laws in other venues. As a result, supporters of
reforms must continue waging battles that they may
think had largely ended after proposed reform bills
became law. Leaders in the IDOE have felt this
on-going pressure to play defense. According to our
interview respondents, since 2011, the agency has
hired six additional lawyers to help address the current
and anticipated future courtroom challenges to
the state’s agenda. Also, state agency communication
strategies have continued to counter ongoing claims
from opponents who persist in resisting the new policies
that they believe emerged without their due input
or consultation.

Whether the opponents’ claims have some merit is
not the important point here. What is important in
terms of implementation is that such persistent opposition
is less likely to exist when reform packages
are constructed via compromise rather than brute
political force. Trade-offs exist no matter which path
is chosen. Reforms based on compromise may find
smoother sailing during implementation. But if consensus
can emerge only if reforms are relatively weak or watered down, then they may be too weak to spark
needed education improvements. Either way, state
leaders who propose and then enact reforms should
anticipate the eventual political dynamics likely to
unfold and develop legal strategies, public communication
efforts, and other methods to address them.

I think there are  important lessons here for Utah legislators – and for Utah teacher organizations, school boards and school districts.

Like Indiana, Utah has a Republican-dominated legislature that can pass laws without support from Democratic legislators. The Indiana example suggests that Republican legislators should try to avoid steamroller tactics and build bipartisan support for education reforms, even if this requires compromise. But the Indiana example also suggests that teachers and their organizations should avoid obstructionist tactics, and instead work with legislators to develop stronger accountability laws that reflect teacher concerns and require teacher involvement. (The Indiana laws may be encountering obstacles, but they’re not going away.)

I’ve posted about some communities that have developed what seem to be more effective teacher evaluation and mentoring systems (Montgomery County, Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio, for example). It can be done, but only when all parties decide to cooperate.

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