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Transcript of Mitch Daniels Address on Education Reform

Since education reform, for me, is the most important issue I want any of the Republican presidential candidates to be talking about, I want to make sure I highlight any speech any of the potential candidates gives on the topic. This is from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels recent State of the State Address

In no realm is our opportunity larger than in the critical task of educating our children. The need for major improvement, and the chance for achieving it, is so enormous tonight that opportunity rises to the level of duty.

Advocates of change in education become accustomed to being misrepresented. If you challenge the fact that forty-two cents of the education dollar are somehow spent outside the classroom, you must not respect school boards. If you wonder why doubling spending didn’t produce any gains in student achievement, you must be criticizing teachers. If your heart breaks at the parade of young lives permanently handicapped by a school experience that leaves them unprepared for the world of work, you must be “anti-public schools.”

So let’s start by affirming once again that our call for major change in our system of education, like that of President Obama, his education secretary and so many others, is rooted in a love for our schools, those who run them and those who teach in them. But it is rooted most deeply in a love for the children whose very lives and futures depend on the quality of the learning they either do or do not acquire while in our schools. Nothing matters more than that. Nothing compares to that.

Some seek change in education on economic grounds, and they are right. To win and hold a family-supporting job, our kids will need to know much more than their parents did. I have seen the future competition, every time I go abroad in search of new jobs for our state, in the young people of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China. Let me tell you—those kids are good. They ought to be. They are in school, not 180 days a year like here, but 210, 220, 230 days a year. By the end of high school, they have benefited from two or three years more education than Hoosier students. Along the way, they have taken harder classes. It won’t be easy to win jobs away from them.

It’s not just tomorrow’s jobs that are at stake. The quality of Indiana education matters right now. When we are courting a new business, right behind taxes, the cost of energy, reasonable regulation, and transportation facilities comes schools. “What kind of school will my children, and our workers’ children attend?” is a question we’re always asked. Sometimes, in some places, it costs us jobs today. There is no time to wait.

In 1999, Indiana passed a law that said schools must either improve their results or be taken over by new management. The little ones who entered first grade then, full of hope and promise, are eighteen now. In the worst of our districts, half of them will not be graduating. God bless and keep them, wherever they are and whatever life now holds for them. For those children, we waited too long.

And it’s not just about the most failing of our schools. The last couple years have seen some encouraging advances, after years of stagnation. But the brute facts persist: only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam. We trail far behind most states and even more foreign countries on measures like excellence in math: at the recent rate of improvement, it would take twenty-one years for us to catch Slovenia, and that’s if Slovenia stands still. That’s too long to wait. That’s too many futures to lose.

In every discussion, someone says “This is very complicated.” Then someone says, “These changes won’t be perfect,” and then you hear “The devil is in the details.” All true. But we can no longer let complexity be an excuse for inaction, nor imperfection the enemy of the good. When it comes to our children’s future, the real devil is not in the details, he’s in the delay, and 2011 is the year the delay must end.

We know what works. It starts with teacher quality. Teacher quality has been found to be twenty times more important than any other factor, including poverty, in determining which kids succeed. Class size, by comparison, is virtually meaningless. Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results. Put a poor teacher in front of a small class, do not expect the kids to learn. In those Asian countries I mentioned, classrooms of thirty-five students are common, and they‘re beating our socks off.

We won’t have done our duty here until every single Indiana youngster has a good teacher every single year. Today, 99 percent of Indiana teachers are rated “effective.” If that were true, 99 percent, not one-third, of our students would be passing those national tests.

Today’s teachers make more money not because their students learned more but just by living longer and putting another certificate on the wall. Their jobs are protected not by any record of great teaching but simply by seniority. We have seen “teachers of the year” laid off, just because they weren’t old enough. This must change. We have waited long enough.

Teachers should have tenure, but they should earn it by proving their ability to help kids learn. Our best teachers should be paid more, much more, and ineffective teachers should be helped to improve or asked to move. Today, the outstanding teacher, the Mr. Watson whose kids are pushed and led to do their best, is treated no better than the worst teacher in the school. That is wrong; for the sake of fairness and the sake of our children, it simply has to end. We have waited long enough.

We are beginning to hold our school leaders accountable for the only thing that really matters: Did the children grow? Did the children learn? Starting this year, schools will get their own grades, in a form we can all understand: ‘A’ to ‘F.’ There will be no more hiding behind jargon and gibberish.

But, in this new world of accountability, it is only fair to give our school leadership full flexibility to deliver the results we now expect. Already, I have ordered our Board of Education to peel away unnecessary requirements that consume time and money without really contributing to learning. We are asking this Assembly to repeal other mandates that, whatever their good intentions, ought to be left to local control. I am a supporter of organ donation, and cancer awareness, and preventing mosquito-borne disease, but if a local superintendent or school board thinks time spent on these mandated courses interferes with the teaching of math, or English, or science, it should be their right to eliminate them from a crowded school day.

And, while unions and collective bargaining are the right of those teachers who wish to engage in them, they go too far when they dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge, who can monitor recess, or on what days the principal is allowed to hold a staff meeting. We must free our school leaders from all the handcuffs that reduce their ability to meet the higher expectations we now have for student achievement.

Lastly, we must begin to honor the parents of Indiana. We must trust them, and respect them enough, to decide when, where, and how their children can receive the best education, and therefore the best chance in life.

Visiting with high school seniors, I discovered one new option we should be offering. A significant fraction of our students complete, or could complete, their graduation requirements in well under twelve years. We should say to these diligent young people, and their families, if you choose to finish in eleven years instead of twelve, we will give you the money we were going to spend while you cruised through twelfth grade, as long as you spend that money on some form of further education. In this year’s survey of high school students, three out of four said they would like to have that option. Let’s empower our kids to defray the high cost of education through their own hard work, by entrusting them with this new and innovative choice.

Another new kind of choice has come to Indiana parents the last couple years, as a byproduct of our property tax reductions. Families are now able to choose public schools outside the districts they reside in, tuition-free. Schools have begun advertising campaigns, touting their graduation rates and higher test scores. This competition is a highly positive development, as long as it is fair. I ask you to protect our families against any possibility of discrimination by requiring that any school with more applicants than room fill it through a lottery or other blind selection process.

Indiana has lagged sadly behind other states in providing the option of charter schools. We must have more of them, and they must no longer be unjustly penalized. They should receive their funding exactly when other public schools do. If they need space, and the local district owns vacant buildings it has no prospect of using, they should turn them over.

Widening parents’ options in these ways will enable the vast majority of children to attend the school of their choice. But one more step is necessary: For families who cannot find the right traditional public school, or the right charter public school for their child, and are not wealthy enough to move near one, justice requires that we help. We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice.

In that gallery and outside sit the most important guests of the evening. 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”? We won’t tell you where to buy your groceries or where to get your tires rotated, but we will tell you, no matter what you think, your child will attend that school, and only that school. We have the money to send our children where we think best, but if you don’t, well, too bad for you.

These children, and their parents, have waited long enough, for a better chance in life. And Indiana has waited long enough for the kind of educational results that a great state must achieve. I have spoken of the economic implications. But, at bottom, this is not about material matters. It is about the civil right, the human right, of every Indiana family to make decisions for its children. It’s about the right of all Hoosier children to realize their full potential in life. Will you join me in saying, the waiting is over, change has come, and Indiana intends to lead it?

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