Republican Governors Champion School Reform

In Indiana and New Jersey, the governors are taking on the teachers unions to end tenure and introduce merit pay.

Even if education standards in most of the United States continue to decline while costs skyrocket, reformers are continually cast aside as the antagonists of teachers and public schools alike. At least two governors are aggressively contending that assertion, suggesting that tenure should be abolished and merit pay introduced.

In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie, who is coping with the legacy of decades of deficit spending and government overreach in his state, is challenging conventional thinking and the powerful union establishment by proposing to introduce vouchers and have underperforming public school teachers fired.

Teachers, Christie told The New York Times, are “the most important thing for learning.” Parental involvement and technology can enhance student performance. “But if you don’t have a good teacher in front of the classroom, all the rest of that stuff is a sideshow.”

Christie’s push for education reform is endorsed by former District of Columbia public school chancellor Michelle Rhee who launched the advocacy group Students First recently. She is urging lawmakers to put children at the forefront of education reform instead of teachers. “If there are any protections that should be afforded to someone in public education, it should be to children, not to adults,” she said on the Fox Business Network this week. Tenure, Rhee added, should not be allowed to shield ineffective teachers from dismissal.

In Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels stressed the economic importance of improving education standards. In his State of the State address last Tuesday, he reminded legislators that youngsters in East Asia are doing far better than American students. “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,” said Daniels, “they have benefited from two or three years more education than Hoosier students. Along the way, they have taken harder classes.” If America is to continue to compete with these countries in the future, education reform is essential. “There is no time to wait.”

“It starts with teacher quality,” according to Daniels. Like his New Jersey counterpart, the Indiana governor pointed out that class size, by comparison, “is virtually meaningless. Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results.”

To improve student performance, Indiana should radically reform tenure if not get rid of it altogether. “We have seen ‘teachers of the year’ laid off, just because they weren’t old enough,” said Daniels. “This must change.”

Like all education reformers, the Indiana and New Jersey governors are confronted with vehement union opposition however. As Daniels put it, “Advocates of change in education [have] become accustomed to being misrepresented.”

If you challenge the fact that 44 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.’

There is nothing wrong with pointing out that public schools aren’t working though. They distort the market, making private education far more expensive than it might otherwise be. Test scores among students in the public school system are low and these institutions have consequently come to oppose standardized testing, arguing that poor performance is harmful to a child’s self-esteem.

Rather than allowing quick learners to advance, classes are rarely organized according to ability. Uniform curricula and peer pressure discourage excellence instead. Government run schools now mass produce mediocrity. Pupils, and parents, deserve a better choice.