It’s fair to say that not everyone gathered at a conservative think tank Wednesday afternoon came to hear Mitch Daniels expound on “Creating First-Rate Education in Indiana,” the title of his talk. With the first GOP debate of the primary season one day away and a paucity of credible candidates participating, inquiring minds want to know if Daniels, a two-term governor of Indiana and former White House budget director, is getting into the race.
In the Q and A period after his dutifully wonky speech with slides and bullet points to reinforce everything he said, a reporter gently pressed Daniels on the 2012 presidential campaign: “Without telling us what you’re going to do, can you tell us why it’s not too late to get in if you’re not a celebrity or a billionaire?”
Daniels had fun with the question, saying it’s only late in the game if you’re a political professional or running a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire; otherwise it’s “a damn good thing” the nominating race is measured in months, not years. He later told reporters he would decide within weeks. Asked to expand on comments about Osama bin Laden that he made on Fox News, he looked puzzled, asking, “What did I say?” When told that he said “the struggle is not over,” he got a big laugh with this response: “I don’t think that’s all that deep a thought really, and I don’t know how much deeper I can go.”
It was vintage Daniels, cutting through the BS in his understated way, which made his speech about the package of reforms he pushed through the Indiana legislature worth paying attention to. They include what will become the nation’s biggest school-voucher program, with substantial cash payouts for not only poor but middle-class families that want to enroll a child in private or parochial school, or in Daniels’ phrase, a “non-governmental” school. Most current voucher programs are limited to low-income families, but Indiana will admit families of four making up to about $60,000 a year. The assistance is capped at $4,500.
Daniels is also pioneering a scholarship program for high-schoolers who accelerate their studies and finish in 11 years instead of 12. They will be given the money to use toward any post-secondary education, including community college. Daniels said he got the idea touring high schools and seeing how seniors cruise through that last year.
Daniels won legislative approval for a yearly teacher evaluation program tied to student performance that will make it easier to get rid of teachers who are not performing, and give high-performing teachers without seniority protection from layoffs. Unlike some of his fellow Republicans, he goes out of his way to offer what he calls “affirmations” for teachers, but says more accountability is needed.
Daniels emphasized that many of his education-overhaul measures are supported by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and he applauded their efforts as well. He recalled Duncan coming to Indianapolis to support a charter school in one of the toughest parts of town; they sat together on the stage, a show of solidarity when it comes to expanding charter schools.
The teachers’ unions are not happy with Daniels, but his workmanlike approach has helped him avoid the more open displays of hostility that greeted similar moves by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio. He points out that 98 percent of Indiana students are in public schools and he expects that percentage to change only marginally with these new options.
These are substantial changes, more far-reaching than any other Republican officeholder has achieved, which, together with his state’s fiscally balanced budget, give Daniels a reformer’s platform that sets him apart from the other prospective candidates—if he runs.
The White House abandoned Democrats fighting for the closing. What’s different this time? By Josh Rogin.