The self-proclaimed education reform movement in Indiana may have hit a tipping point in the past few days.
In fact, several moves the state’s political and educational leaders took in a short period of time bring the contradictions within the movement into clear focus.
For example, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced that the GOP wanted the Indiana General Assembly to work on readjusting the school funding formula. As it stands, that formula tends to provide more money for urban school districts than rural ones – at least half-again as much.
Bosma and his fellow Republicans – most of them education reform true-believers – want to alter that so rural school districts get more cash.
Such a move would do a couple of things. It would tend to reward suburbs and small towns – which tend to support Republicans – at the expense of cities, which tend to vote for Democrats.
But it also seems to undercut one of the primary arguments conservatives have used in pushing for school vouchers and other staples of the education reform movement – that these reform measures are designed to uplift and empower troubled young people in primarily inner-city environments.
Then there were the twin decisions by the state board of education, all the members of which have been appointed by Republican governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.
The board voted in its October meeting to delay approving letter grades for Indiana schools. The board members said they didn’t have any information they could trust to make a determination – and they didn’t want to do anything that might undermine the integrity of the process.
But then the board members made a move that was bound to raise questions about that integrity. They voted to raise the grades for two schools – including Christel House, which just last year received national attention in ways the school likely did not want.
That was when former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett decided to elevate Christel House’s grade because – he said in a frank email – having the school receive a low grade would undermine all of his education reform efforts.
The argument for moving Christel House up from a D to a B this time around was more subtle – namely, that the school’s performance hadn’t been evaluated in a full enough fashion – but that contention that context matters when weighing school performance is one that the board members and other education reform advocates haven’t given much credence when applied to traditional public schools.
And then there was Gov. Pence, who decided at the last minute not to apply for about $80 million in federal funds that would have funded early childhood education in Indiana.
Pence tried to spin his decision as an assertion of Hoosier pride and independence – we don’t need those stinkin’ feds telling us what to do – but the argument wasn’t particularly persuasive. Pence is happy – no, eager – to take federal dollars, strings and all.
In this case, though, a public early education program likely would have drained away students and funds from church and other religious-based child care programs. The governor had been beseeched by social conservatives, whose votes he likely will need if he runs for president, not to make it possible for Hoosiers to quit paying churches and other faith-based groups to provide child care and educational services.
It left Pence, who prides himself on his education reform credentials, in the curious position of saying he was going to empower Hoosier parents and children by limiting their choices.
That, of course, is exactly the argument he and other education reformers like to use to indict teachers unions and parents who support traditional public education.
So, what we’ve got here are efforts to reward specific constituencies, particular friends and pet theories – all in the name of supposed education reform.
It’s hard to know what conclusions should be drawn from all this game-playing, but one thing does seem clear.
The so-called education reform crowd must think Hoosiers are pretty dumb, because they’re counting on them not to see through a lot of this.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.