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America's Leading Reform Laboratory: Indiana Reform Epicenter

Improving education in America can no longer be swept under the rug. Seemingly every report on the state of American education is grim. In 2012, American students came in 17th place out of 34 in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – a test administered to 15 year old students every three years to measure comparative global education.

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To add salt to the wound, the United States spends over twice as much as Slovakia, yet the European republic scored better in math and barely trailed in science and reading comprehension. In fact, only four countries: Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, spend more per student than the United States. Simply put, this outcome is unacceptable.

While D.C. politicians have yet to pass meaningful education reform, Indiana – one of our country’s 50 laboratories for democracy – has.

It can be argued that Indiana’s classroom reforms began in 2001 when Indiana passed legislation allowing charter schools to operate within the state.

However, this was simply the beginning.

When former Governor Mitch Daniels took office, he teamed up with former Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett to engineer a historic reform package. In 2011, Daniels signed the following into laws:

  1. A multi-faceted evaluation process: Annual feedback using multifaceted evaluations– including, but not limited to, how much academic growth their students have achieved as a result of their teaching – will be administered for teachers. Added factors include the teacher’s level of responsibility and effectiveness and the students’ levels of need. These evaluations will rate all teachers on a four level scale: highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and ineffective. The state will publish these evaluations anonymously every year.
  2. Merit-based pay: After the conclusion of the evaluations, teachers will be eligible for pay increases based on merit, not just on years of service and additional education.
  3. Subject-area expertise: In a further effort to improve teacher quality, teachers will be required to earn their undergraduate degree in their subject area, not simply a degree in education.
  4. Parental approval: Students will be protected from ineffective teachers through a measure that allows parents to request that their child not have that teacher a second year.
  5. Encouraging charters: House Bill 1002 expands the number of charter schools and eliminates regulations that formerly restricted them. It provides startup funds and access to unused school facilities for a $1 lease per year. It removes the remaining caps on mayor-approved charters and virtual charter schools. The bill also establishes a new state-wide charter authorizing board that will bring more accountability to charter schools by expanding authorizers to non-profit colleges.
  6. Conversion options: The bill also empowers parents who wish to convert a failing school to a charter by setting a “trigger” vote: if 51 percent agree, the conversion will take place.
  7. Needs-based vouchers: House Bill 1003 provides needs-based vouchers (scholarships) to qualifying families who wish to send their child to participating non-public schools. This means that families that fall below the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) income level receive a voucher for 90 percent of the state tuition support for that student (about $40,000 for a family of four). Families below 150 percent of the NSLP income level receive a voucher for 50 percent of the state tuition support for that student (about $60,000 for a family of four). The voucher cap for grades 1-8 is $4,500, but there is no limit on tuition for high school students so long as the family meets the income-based requirements. Should a student choose a school rather than his home school, the voucher follows the student. A notable feature of this voucher plan is that the public schools must have their opportunity to meet the needs of the student first. Therefore, in order for a student to be available for the voucher, that student must attend a public school for two semesters. The numbers of students who can take advantage of the vouchers are as follows: 7,500 in 2012, 15,000 in 2013, and unlimited after that.
  8. Standards for non-public schools: In order for a non-public school to participate in the voucher program, they also must give the state achievement test and be graded A-F, like the public and charter schools.
  9. Tax incentives: The new law also supports private sector financial support of this school choice option by raising the tax credit amount for those who donate money to private choice scholarship organizations who grant scholarships to students. 

Operating on the premise that parents know their child’s needs better than the government, Governor Mike Pence followed in his predecessors footsteps by continuing to reform education in favor of the citizen.

In 2012 – Pence’s first year as Governor – legislation passed the Indiana General Assembly expanding Indiana’s private school voucher program, allowing those in failing school districts and siblings of current voucher students access to the program.

Pence’s second year as Governor also saw continued educational reforms.

During the 2014 legislative session, Governor Pence made funding pre-kindergarten education a top priority. Working with the other side of the aisle, Governor Pence signed into law a pre-kindergarten pilot program, which will grant low-income families access to state-funded pre-kindergarten. The program will be studied for effectiveness with the possibility of expansion. With the signing of this legislation, Indiana became the 41st state to offer direct aid for pre-kindergarten tuition.

These reforms are great news for education throughout the state, as it enhances the effectiveness and accountability of both public and non-public schools, makes it easier to establish options through an expanded charter school system; gives principals the opportunity to really lead schools toward increasing student achievement; recognizes and rewards teachers as true professionals; gives parents increased options to select the school that best meets the needs of their children; and focuses the efforts of all those involved on students actually learning.

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