As Inkwell readers may know, one of my pet peeves is that lack of spending isn’t the reason the country has so many abysmally performing public schools. Some of the worst school systems spend the most money. That is why I am excited about one new piece of legislation that potentially improves education in one state without increasing the budget. I also love it that the ideas in the legislation are being tried in the laboratory of one state, not imposed from above by the ever-growing federal government. 

I refer, of course, to a law just signed by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and described in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:   

Under the new law, the state will provide 7,500 publicly financed scholarships of up to $4,500 a year to Hoosier elementary school kids who have been in public schools for the last two semesters and then want to attend another school, public or private. That scholarship number rises to 15,000 in the second year, with no cap in the third year and beyond. High school students can also qualify for a voucher of up to 90% of the state public school support, which varies by school district.

The thinking here is that parents have to give the public schools a try, but then their children shouldn’t be trapped by inferior schools merely because of where they live. The voucher is means-tested by family income up to a maximum of roughly $60,000 or so, with lower-income families getting a larger payment. Mr. Daniels says about half of all Hoosier school children will qualify.

Parents can take the money to any certified school in the state, including religious schools. Though the unions will no doubt sue to block the reform, the law should pass both state and federal constitutional muster because it is religiously neutral and parents choose the school for their children….

Another common objection to vouchers is that they cost the state money by spending twice for each student, but Indiana’s plan may save money because Indianapolis public schools now spend about $9,000 per student, or twice what the vouchers will cost. The law also changes the state’s school funding formula so it will be based on current year enrollment, giving public schools an incentive to improve to retain students or lose money.

The law also ends the last-hired, first-out layoff policies that have kept inferior teachers in the classroom and puts in place new evaluation procedures for teachers.  The inability to fire bad teachers is a major impediment to improving public education. This law makes it easier to send them packing.   

As you might guess, the teacher unions aren’t jumping with joy over these reforms. Daniels’ handling of them shows why some Republicans are salivating at the idea of a Daniels run for the White House (and even willing to tolerate Daniels’ Hamlet impersonation as he tries to decide):

All of this is a major achievement for Mr. Daniels and his Republican legislative majority. Answering to the unions, Democrats tried the flee-to-Illinois strategy to block the reform but Mr. Daniels treated them with gentle scorn and waited them out. The unions are sure to try to capture and water down all of this, so reformers will have to monitor the implementation. But the future just got considerably brighter for Indiana’s children.

But not for the state’s deadwood teachers!