The real reason Indiana’s Democrats fled

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In what is becoming a signature move of a defeated political coalition, Democratic members of the Indiana state legislature followed their Wisconsin counterparts and fled Hoosierland this week. Ostensibly done to avoid voting on legislation that would make Indiana a “right-to-work” jurisdiction, the real devil for Indiana Democrats may not be this “union-busting” legislation. After all, private-sector unionization — the bill’s key target — is now the sick old man within labor’s empire. Rather, the real fear of fly-by-night Democrats is recently introduced legislation that would establish path-breaking statewide tuition scholarships enabling students from low and middle income families to choose their own school. By running, these politicians are signaling blanket opposition to the education reform proposals of a conservative coalition led by Governor Mitch Daniels.

We may never know when the decision of Indiana Democrats to “just move on” may have been hatched, but surely Mitch Daniels’s January 2011 State of the State Address led them to inquire with Illinois’s resorts about room availability. Featured at the address were parents and children assembled in the gallery who were on waiting lists for charter schools, hoping to escape the doom of an underwhelming and forced education experience. Under Daniels’s school choice plan, these families will not be waiting for Superman much longer. Also paying attention to this speech, apart from parents and students, were teachers and the politicians who depend on the latter’s compelled union dues for their electoral power. Putting choice in the hands of parents and students, while not destroying this arrangement, certainly throws it into question.

A consistent advocate of education reform, Gov. Daniels is fighting on several fronts. Daniels aims to increase charter schools and ease chartering requirements, establish an easy method for parents to reclaim their failing schools through a voting process, and renegotiate collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions, among other things. However, Daniels has moved beyond just charter schools, mandates, and testing requirements and is now contesting the government school bureaucracy on its own ground.

The enduring power of Indiana’s education reform is that it would minimize the forced combination of teacher-union entrenchment and parental limitation. Slice this Gordian knot and the opportunity for a lasting revolution in education is obvious. In the State of the State, Daniels sounded the families’ plights perfectly: “They are children, and parents of children, who are waiting for a spot in a charter or private school. They believe their futures will be brighter if they can make that choice. Look at those faces. Will you be the one to tell the parents “tough luck“? Are you prepared to say to them “We know better than you do“?” School choice reform, Daniels creatively argued, is a civil right. Families in a compulsory system have a right for their children to be educated instead of being cognitively abused by the current system.

Many thought that making significant progress in tuition scholarships or vouchers had stalled across the country. Proposals for statewide vouchers have been defeated, soundly in many cases. Even conservative Utah sneezed on its statewide attempt for vouchers, 62 percent to 38 percent. In response, leaders within the education reform movement called for renewed focus on instruction, content, and defeating the intellectual hegemony of the education colleges. All of this is true, so far as it goes; but, given the power of the status quo, defeating “the soft bigotry of low expectations” requires a crushing blow to the teachers’ union’s monopoly power.

The fatal flaw in the No Child Left Behind Act was it’s belief that an innovative federal response could circumvent union control of almost every primary and secondary education market in the country. The Act’s testing, mandates, and centrally controlled accountability mechanisms cannot surmount the rubble that remains of America’s once-great K-12 school system. The battle — victory or defeat — must be joined by the parents, neighborhoods, and civic groups that are planted in communities from coast to coast. Giving them the freedom to choose, thus making local rule effective, is the only promising reform.

Passage of Indiana’s school-choice reform would be a decisive step in the decades-long attempt by cities and states across the nation to restore public education in America to what it does best: build the futures of children from difficult circumstances. Other venues to explore this policy have chiefly been cities and they have been hemmed in by more powerful and hostile forces seeking to roll back reform. The elimination of Washington, D.C.’s choice program in 2009 by the Democratic Congress and President Obama is a cruel example. Moreover, we finally will be able to measure and evaluate in a large jurisdiction not only the performance of students receiving scholarships but the adjustments union-organized schools make in response to their competitors. After all, innovation ultimately comes from the discovery process of competition. Trial, error, and bold experimentation will help school reformers discover learning methods that actually fill young Americans’ minds with the knowledge and skills they need to prosper on an increasingly competitive and demanding planet.

To be sure, the reform could fail to pass one or both houses. Republicans consistently are able to pull the cloud out of every silver lining. However, the X factor that should leave reform proponents feeling confident of victory is a rising Governor Daniels and a conservative movement that may have found a leader who succeeds by direct and bold moral argumentation for political principle. Ultimately, the choice option works because it touches the core competency of public education. It is not rocket science, but the alignment of the separate but intertwined incentives of students and parents and teachers to achieve their goals. Getting to this crucial educational moment is the key. Unfortunately, we have suppressed students and parents with the current East Berlin structure of education delivery. Tear down this wall and be prepared for a new spontaneous order in education.

Richard M. Reinsch II is an Indianapolis-based writer and the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary (ISI Books, July 2010).