The Lesson from Education Reform Idol: Elections Matter

It was hardly a surprise that Indiana took home the Education Reform Idol trophy today. Pundits from across the ideological spectrum have lauded the Hoosier State for its comprehensive reforms enacted this spring—including a best-in-the-nation teacher bill, an expansive private school choice program, and a serious effort at collective bargaining and benefits reform.

But why 2011? Mitch Daniels has been in office since 2005; Tony Bennett since 2009. While they haven’t been twiddling their thumbs (last year, Bennett enacted new regulations revamping teacher professional development, for instance), legislators didn’t get religion on reform until now. How come?

The answer is obvious: The 2010 elections, which gave Indiana Republicans control of the House and a super-majority in the Senate. The same thing happened in Ohio, where the House and governor’s office both switched from blue to red. Big GOP victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and other states led to similar dynamics. Though it’s not an ironclad law, it’s still generally true that when Republicans take power, reforms take flight.

This point might be obvious, but it bears repeating, because so much of the energy within the reform movement today is about moving Democratic legislators toward more reform-friendly positions. That’s certainly worthwhile, and the work of groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children deserve support and encouragement. But let’s not be naïve: Getting rank and file Dems to buck their union patrons is a quixotic quest. Asking Republicans to embrace significant reform is a no-brainer. That’s why most of Michelle Rhee’s work this year has been in GOP-friendly terrain. (Perhaps she should rename her group “Rhee-publicans for Education Reform.”)

To be sure, blue states have been working hard on education reform too, and Illinois received a lot of kudos (and plenty of votes) today for its work on Senate Bill 7, a revamp of teacher evaluation. A credible case can be made (and was made by Robin Steans of Advance Illinois) that bipartisan legislation has a much better shot at surviving the changing political winds—and getting implemented on the ground—than laws pushed through in a highly partisan manner. Perhaps she’s right, though Florida’s 10-year experience with path-breaking reform demonstrates that controversial, partisan laws can still lead to substantial progress.

President Barack Obama might be frustrated by his difficulties in working with Congressional Republicans on the debt, the budget, and much else. But on education—where he’s a rare true-blue reformer—he might notice that his strongest allies are GOP governors and legislators. Who would’ve thought.

-Mike Petrilli

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