In his fine book, the One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes Indiana—a state that became all-Red as its House of Representatives turned Republican in the 2010 Tea Party wave—as “one of the models of corporate-backed education reform.”
Lafer continues: “Between 2011 and 2015 legislators in the Hoosier state adopted new statutes restricting teachers’ right to collective bargaining, expanding both charter schools and vouchers, authorizing online education, lowering certification standards, requiring that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores, and replacing across-the-board pay increases with merit pay that is reserved for those with the highest test scores and often comes in the form of a onetime bonus rather than a permanent raise.” (p. 147)
Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, covers this political transformation of Indiana in a fascinating short piece that you may have missed during the holidays. Burris explores the history of Indiana’s journey from solid, widespread support for its public schools to the undermining of that consensus by corporate leaders and politicians like Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.
Burris describes a 1996, after dinner conversation convened by Steve Hilbert—an insurance giant—at his estate. The conversation, led by Mike Pence, included Mitch Daniels, then an executive at Eli Lily, Fred Klipsch, a business leader, and Mickey Mauer of the Indianapolis Business Journal: “In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests—Daniels, Pence and Klipsch—would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana. Daniels, who was governor from 2005-2013, would earn national recognition for his methodical and persistent undermining of public schools and their teachers in the name of reform. Pence would follow Daniels as governor, pushing privatization even further. Pence would award even more tax dollars to charter schools and make Indiana’s voucher program one of the largest in the country. Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth… that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.”
Here is how Burris describes the transformation that had taken place by 2017 when she visited Indiana: “In 1996… there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers. Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a ‘liberal and leading role’ in providing public education for its children. When I visited the state 21 years later, public schools were reeling from 15 years of relentless attack. I found public schools engaged in fierce competition with each other, charter schools, virtual schools and voucher schools for students and the ‘backpack funding’ that came with them. Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and sandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools.”
According to Burris, Governor Mitch Daniels led a compliant legislature to starve the public schools and create incentives for privatization: “Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.” All this undermined the poorest school districts. “It also made districts entirely dependent on the whims of the legislature. General funding would become ‘an annual unknown.'”
Burris also shares what was driving Indiana’s political swing to the right—what was happening behind the scenes as the Michigan DeVos family began investing in Indiana school policy lobbying, and Florida’s Jeb Bush and his advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, exported his pet priorities, including an A-F school district rating scheme that awarded low grades to the state’s poorest school districts.
In a major 2013 address, Fred Klipsch—of the 1996 after-dinner conversation Burris describes at the beginning of her story— credited his PAC with the 2010 election of a super-Republican-majority in the Indiana House which made possible the passage of a mass of education reforms in 2011. Burris adds: “What he does not mention to his audience was that the PAC of Betsy DeVos, now the Trump administration’s education secretary, kicked in a huge amount of the cash beginning in 2010… (I)n 2010, the Hoosiers for Economic Growth PAC received $285,000 in contributions from DeVos’s American Federation for Children Fund.” The DeVos family also gave and has continued giving, “with their PAC’s contributing at least $1.29 million to the Hoosier PAC to date… DeVos family members have also made $1.6 million in direct contributions to Indiana politicians and political causes since 2004, and nearly $2 million in nonprofit grant money, with most of the money going to Klipsch projects.”
Burris concludes: “It is not surprising… that after securing a Republican supermajority in the legislature, Daniels jammed through an education agenda crafted behind the scenes by GOP power brokers. Nor is it surprising that Jeb Bush, whose education reform organizations were heavily subsidized by the DeVos family, would come to the state to give advice.” In May of 2011, Daniels and the Republican-dominated legislature enacted what Burris calls “the broadest voucher program in the country.” “By the end of his term, Daniel’s rhetoric regarding public education was openly hostile Public schools were called government schools. He referred to attending a public school without the ability to have a voucher as an incarceration.”
Burris promises to follow up on this story by tracing the further expansion of school privatization during the administration of the governor who followed Mitch Daniels: our current U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence.