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Mitch Daniels: Education Reformer

  • Ryan Streeter
  • May 3, 2011
  • : Education Reform, Sagamore Perspectives

First published in The Weekly Standard, May 3, 2011

He has been the subject of ongoing 2012 presidential speculation. His fiscal fortitude in Indiana has been widely covered, and his controversial “truce” remarks on social issues have sparked heated debate. But to date, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has received very little national exposure for his most important policy initiative: taking Indiana from the backwaters of education reform in America to the forefront.

Jeb Bush has rightfully earned the reputation as America’s most reform-minded governor on education issues. He introduced vouchers for students in failing schools, created greater accountability within the system, and based teacher pay on merit. His achievements have set the standard for subsequent would-be reformers such as Daniels.

But now Indiana’s governor aims to go beyond Bush. The other week, Indiana’s legislature passed the last of four bills that Daniels has been advocating for awhile in his effort to make Indiana the vanguard of education reform in America. Once implemented, his education agenda will be the most expansive school reform effort the country has seen.

Indiana’s reforms are similar in many respects to Florida’s focus on accountability, high standards, school choice, and teacher performance.

The Daniels reforms go beyond the Florida experiment, however, in two important areas: institutionalizing choice for families and establishing classroom-level performance as the key metric for schools. On the first point, Indiana has conceived choice more universally than was the case in Florida. On the second point, Indiana’s policy is close to Florida’s, but the Hoosiers have been able to go farther by overcoming political barriers that tripped up Florida’s reformers.

Institutionalizing choice. Typically, when one hears the word “choice” in an education reform context, one thinks “vouchers.” And while vouchers are indeed a centerpiece of the Daniels agenda, they represent only one essential component among several. The Indiana approach to choice is more properly understood as giving families educational options in the broadest, most universal sense.

In 2010, the state made it possible for students to transfer from one public school district to another. This set the stage for further reforms aimed at making families’ choices, not school districts, the main unit of education policy. Indiana’s new education laws build upon this emphasis on mobility and family intent.

Vouchers according to need, not school status. Before it was struck down by the Florida supreme court in 2006, Bush created the nation’s first statewide voucher program for students in failing schools. Daniels’s plan makes vouchers available to all students within specific income ranges, not just those in bad schools. It is the broadest voucher framework in the nation, aimed at both low income and lower middle class students. Linking the vouchers to family income rather than school performance infuses competition into the heart of Indiana’s school system and sets the stage for all the other reforms.

Vouchers on a universal basis. The number of vouchers is capped at 7,500 for the first year, raised to 15,000 the following year, and then unlimited thereafter. This allows an appropriate phase-in period while ultimately aiming at universal support for qualifying families. 

A pro-college-prep funding model. Families that choose to transfer their children from a public to a private school receive $4,500 per child in K-8, but no limit on tuition for high school so long as the family meets the means-testing requirements. This helps those who can get into high quality prep schools but cannot afford the gap between tuition and the voucher amount.

Expanding charters with greater parent empowerment and heightened accountability. Thousands of students are on waiting lists for Indiana’s 60 charter schools. Daniels’s reforms make it easier to start charters and increase the number of charter sponsors. They also install a “trigger” by which parents can convert failing schools into charter schools. Funding will follow the student rather than stay in a given school district. These reforms ultimately produce a vibrant marketplace aimed at disrupting the public school system’s monopoly.

Encouraging private sector support of choice. Like Florida, Indiana offers a tax credit to those who donate money to organizations that provide choice scholarships to students. The new Indiana law raises the credit amount and aims at expanding overall participation.

Classroom performance. Central to the reform efforts in both Florida and Indiana is the notion that student performance and incentives for teachers should be meaningfully linked. While discussions about “performance” during the era of No Child Left Behind often focus on schools, districts, and states, reformers understand that performance at the micro level of the classroom matters most. Florida and Indiana have based their reforms on this idea.

Florida introduced a merit pay system under Bush, which has culminated in a new law that Governor Rick Scott signed in March linking merit pay to student test scores.

Indiana’s new laws chart a similar course but go farther, mainly because Daniels and his new Republican majority in the state house have enjoyed a more favorable political environment.

Paying teachers by what they do, not who they are. The Daniels reforms end tenure for new teachers, establish merit rather than seniority as the basis for pay increases, and include objective student performance as one element in evaluating teacher performance. In this way Indiana’s and Florida’s new laws are similar.

Instituting a rigorous evaluation model. In order for the first point to work, the schools need a solid teacher evaluation process. Indiana’s new laws establish yearly evaluations for teachers and principals, require student achievement to be one component of the evaluations, assess how rigorously teachers use the best tools, and give teachers a score on a four-point scale.  

Limiting collective bargaining. The evaluations would matter a lot less, however, if collective bargaining were unchanged. The new Indiana law limits collective bargaining to teacher pay and wage-related benefits and removes all other extraneous matters (curriculum, class size, pedagogy, and a host of other provisions) from the bargaining process. Together with the first two points, this allows flexibility in focusing resources on the classroom, rewarding good teachers, and removing the underperformers. Adding the bargaining provision to the first two gives Indiana an advantage over the otherwise excellent merit pay bill Florida passed in March.

Taken together, these reforms have a simple objective: keep the focus on the students. By limiting bargaining, heightening evaluation standards, and instituting merit pay, Indiana has made the classroom – and the students comprising it – the center of its reform agenda.

When you roll Indiana’s reforms together, you find yourself looking at a state that offers vouchers to all who need them, has made creating new charter schools easier, erased boundaries between districts, delinked teacher pay from seniority, limited collective bargaining, and made student achievement a central measure of teacher evaluation. Back when school reform efforts began in earnest in the 1980s, this combination of reforms would have seemed a utopian dream.

And, as if they aren’t enough, Daniels has used the state budget to institute all-day kindergarten and a scholarship system for students who graduate from high school in three years.

The ink is still drying on the new reforms he has just signed, but Daniels already seems to be cementing his legacy as one of America’s leading education reformers.

Ryan Streeter is editor of, a distinguished fellow at the Sagamore Institute, and an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute.

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