Lessons from 2011's Education Reform Idol


Education Reform Idol!!!!!

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 root.

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 ten-year experience with path-breaking reform
demonstrates that controversial, partisan laws can still lead to substantial

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?

This piece originally
(in a slightly different
format) on Fordham’s
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Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.