Enlow: Other States Trying to Emulate Indiana on Vouchers, Charter School Law

The following guest blog is part of our weeklong celebration of National School Choice Week:

Around this time last year, the national spotlight was on Indiana because of a battle in the state capital. No, not right-to-work – the Super Bowl. But in the absence of that spectacle, the nation continues to keep a watchful eye on Indiana for the transformative changes made to its education system – particularly in the area of school choice.

Our state continually ranks at the top in the educational opportunities it provides Hoosiers. With vouchers, Indiana has the largest eligibility window of the other 11 voucher-providing states: 530,000 low- and middle-income students statewide, 9,324 of whom opted for vouchers in the program’s second year. The state has the sixth-best charter school law in the nation, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And in the Center for Education Reform’s “Parent Power Index,” which compiles a number of education reform measures that empower families, Indiana ranks number one.

Hoosiers should know that other states have tried for years to adopt pieces of the package Indiana approved. And make no mistake, other states need to pass those measures because our country has been woefully lagging, and overspending, in attempting to prepare our young people for college, careers and life.

In 1966, the federal government provided $2 billion for public education (using 2006 dollars). In 2005, that number increased to $25 billion. In 2010, total federal spending on K-12 education reached $47 billion. Meanwhile, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a history of education outcomes not keeping pace with those increased expenditures. In 1971, the average score for eighth graders on NAEP’s reading exam was 255 (on a 500-point scale). In 2011, that number stood at 265. For fourth graders over that same time period, the average score bumped from 208 to 221.

School choice, on the other hand, has proved its positive effect on increasing student outcomes at around half the cost. Of the 10 random-assignment studies – considered research’s “gold standard” – conducted on school vouchers, nine showed they positively impact student performance; one found no effect. And among the empirical studies examining school choice’s effect on other schools, all but one found competition improves traditional public schools; again, one found no effect. None concluded there is a negative impact.

That’s why states – this year’s list includes Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas – are trying to emulate Indiana. And they must. Such policies may not be as fun as the Super Bowl, but their effects are certainly game-changers for taxpayers, schools, parents, and those who matter most: students.

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Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which is participating in National School Choice Week, January 27-February 2. More than 100 Indiana schools are holding events during the weeklong celebration for school choice.

Northeast Neighbors Vie to Add RTW

A right-to-work delay in Indiana doesn’t mean it’s not the right time for RTW in other states. The New Hampshire House has passed legislation and Maine Gov. Paul LePage says "we’re going after" right-to-work.

The New Hampshire bill passed the House 221-131 (what the heck they are doing with 350-plus House members in one of our smaller states is a question for another day). The Deputy House Speaker was quoted as saying:

"New Hampshire would be the first state in the Northeast to pass right-to-work legislation and would help us become a haven for employers seeking a pro-business environment,” Pamela Tucker said.

“Freedom is a core New Hampshire belief, and freedom of association and choice is a fundamental right of every NH citizen.”

In Maine, the governor made his intentions known while in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting. His comments to Politico:

"I believe if an individual wants to join organized labor and work under a union contract, they should have the legal right to do so," he said. "At the same token, a person who does not want to work under organized labor and wants to work should have the ability to do so without the threat of having to join and having to pay dues to organized labor."

"It’s that simple," he said. "It’s all about freedom and liberty."

RTW, of course, is on hold in Indiana. It was originally cited as the reason for the House Democrat walkout, but that was quickly proven not to be the case. Legislative leaders said RTW would not return in any form prior to a possible summer study committee, but nearly all the Democrat caucus remains in an Urbana, Illinois hotel, now citing education reform as the reason for their discontent.

The Chamber simply made the case for the advantages of right-to-work in a January 31 study and accompanying press release. We look forward to the debate resuming at a later time on this issue — and now for the other important bills before the General Assembly. 

More States Challenge Legality of Health Care Law

It seems the controversial federal health care law is not going through without serious rebuttal from what is now over 50% of America’s states. A state press release has more on the ongoing lawsuit and Indiana’s role:

Today six additional states sought to join the group of 20 plaintiff states — including Indiana – that have brought a legal challenge to the new federal health care law. Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who joined the lawsuit on behalf of Indiana in May, issued this statement:

“Now that the number of plaintiff states has expanded from 20 to 26, it underscores that this lawsuit is widely understood to have merit. After the health care law was ruled unconstitutional in a separate lawsuit in Virginia that raised many of the same arguments, no one now can claim that this legal challenge is a frivolous lawsuit,” Zoeller said.

“Regardless of the eventual ruling by the federal court in our case, it is important that the states have an opportunity as sovereign entities to challenge the constitutionality of the federal government’s claims of authority. Under our federalist system, this respectful legal challenge is a proper check on the role of the federal government,” Zoeller added.

“We and the other plaintiff states contend the federal mandate that individuals purchase a private health insurance product or face a penalty is unconstitutional, and that ultimately this question should be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Having met with Hoosiers across our state, I agree that some type of health insurance reform is needed in this country, but implementing it ought to be done in a constitutional manner,” Zoeller said.

In addition to Indiana, the group of 20 plaintiff states bringing the legal challenge included Florida, South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Alaska and North Dakota. Also joining as plaintiffs were two private individuals and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

Today, the plaintiffs filed a motion with the court to amend the complaint so that six more states can join the case: Ohio, Kansas, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Maine and Iowa, bringing the total plaintiff states to 26. The U.S. Department of Justice represents the federal government defendants.

Health Care Reform Farewell in Maine

Maine gets credit for being first in line (seven years ago) in attempting to tackle health care reform. At one point during the national debate, it was viewed as a model to emulate. Its Dirigo plan, however, never lived up to expectations and appears headed for the scrap heap. Stateline reports:

Before there was a federal health care overhaul, and before there was a Massachusetts law to use as a model for the national plan, there was Dirigo. That’s what Maine called its first-in-the-nation attempt at achieving universal health coverage when Democrats approved the plan back in 2003.

Now, the Maine program may be one of the first casualties of the Republican landslide in state capitals. Maine’s incoming governor, Paul LePage, pledged during the campaign to “repeal and replace” the plan, which is Latin for “I lead” and is the state’s motto. Republicans also took control of the Maine House and Senate, making the state one of only two to flip from total Democratic control to total control by Republicans (Wisconsin was the other).

Dirigo was the brainchild of outgoing Governor John Baldacci, who sought to dramatically increase coverage for the uninsured while lowering the costs associated with hospital care. A key to the program was encouraging small businesses to buy coverage for their employees by making plans affordable and subsidizing coverage for individuals and families on a sliding scale based on income.

But the program faced battles over funding from the start. In 2007, Maine capped enrollment for two years until lawmakers could agree on a funding fix. The problem was further complicated when voters in 2008 rolled back the tax on soda and alcohol that the Legislature figured would pay for Dirigo. Even its supporters admit the program has never lived up to its promise of serving as many as 180,000 of Maine’s 1.2 million residents by 2009.

LePage, a Tea Party favorite, has called Dirigo “a costly failure.” He claims taxpayers have spent more than $160 million to cover just 3,400 uninsured Mainers under the program. Baldacci’s administration disagrees with that portrayal, arguing that since it began, Dirigo has covered more than 32,000 people without using any general fund dollars to pay for it.

Under a complicated funding arrangement, Dirigo is funded 50 percent by the “savings offset payment” from private insurance companies. That’s the amount the state figures insurers are saving because the uninsured aren’t seeking emergency care they can’t pay for. The rest of the funding comes from premiums, the federal government and tobacco settlement dollars.

It’s My Party and I’ll Switch If I Want To

Rumor has it that three members of Congress (Democrat senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, as well as Republican senator Olympia Snow) are at least thinking about switching parties. The results of past such moves are definitely mixed.

According to Congress.org:

The biggest reason that people speculate about lawmakers switching parties is that it might help them get re-elected. (Manchin, Nelson and Snowe are up in 2012.)

But will it? We took a look at some recent lawmakers who switched parties to see what happened next.

Failures

The government’s most recent party switcher is Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA). He spent almost 30 years as a Republican and switched to the Democrats in 2009, at least in part because he thought he had a better chance of winning reelection.

That logic turned out to be highly flawed: Specter didn’t even make it to the November general election, as he lost the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak.

A couple of months later, Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL) suffered a similar fate. Griffith was elected as a Democrat in 2008, switched parties just a year after joining Congress, and lost the Republican Party primary in Alabama’s fifth district by nearly 25 points.

And then there’s Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist was elected as a Republican in 2006 and decided to run for Senate this year, but when it appeared he was close to losing the Republican primary to Marco Rubio, he dropped out of the party and ran as an independent.

Rubio won the general election by 20 points anyway.

Successes

In contrast to those three, a handful of politicians have successfully made the switch in recent years.

Most prominent among them is Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, who was elected to the Senate in 1986 as a Democrat. He traded teams and joined the Republican Party in 1994 as part of the Newt-Gingrich-orchestrated wave election, and he has cruised to reelection three times since, including this year.

Shelby isn’t the only one to have turned on his original party and lived to tell about it.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) is the oldest man in Congress—he was first elected in 1980—and always considered himself a conservative Democrat.

Hall even helped found the Blue Dog Coalition, the fiscally conservative group of Democrats that lost two dozen seats in last week’s midterms.

But Hall has been able to hold onto his since his switch to the Republican Party in 2004, and it looks like he can serve until he’s ready to retire: He won 73 percent of the votes last week.

And the rest

There are also several recent examples of Congressmen who switched parties with limited aims.

Former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) served 12 years as a Republican, then left the party to become an independent and caucus with Democrats in 2001. He never sought reelection, so it’s hard to draw any particular lesson.

The experience of Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) is similar to Jeffords’.

Campbell was elected as a Democrat in 1992, changed parties three years into his term, won reelection in 1998 and retired in 2004, so the switch didn’t appear to do any harm. 

Not Enough Time on Their Hands in D.C.?

Quirky Congressional calendars and policy stalemates are nothing new in Washington. For those of that mindset, it appears the rest of 2010 won’t be too upsetting. And with some of the damage Congress has inflicted on businesses of all sizes and their employees over the last few years, maybe that isn’t all bad.

In the House (which doesn’t return until Tuesday), it’s less than three weeks until the August break (starting a week earlier than normal). House members will not be back in Washington until mid-September, with a targeted adjournment date of October 8 in order to hit the campaign trail fulltime in the weeks leading up to the November 2 election. Are we looking at a lame-duck session in November or December — or no action on major items until 2011?

For the Senate, the legislative backlog includes:

  • Seeking two votes (Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe are the top targets) to move the financial regulatory reform conference report
  • A lending pool/tax incentives increase for small businesses, which was originally seen as an opportunity to address other financial issues — including the expiring Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003
  • A $75 billion war supplemental that faces a White House veto over issues unrelated to the original intent. The House added $16 billion, including $10 billion to local school districts to help avoid teacher layoffs. Part of the offsets feature recissions in education programs (among them Race to the Top); hence, the White House opposition

CongressDaily reports the following on that bill:

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye did not include funding for teachers in the measure the Senate approved in May because it was unclear if there was enough support to pass the bill. 

Supporters of the teacher funding will also have to overcome opposition from a group of 13 Democratic senators led by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who called the proposed cuts to education programs "unacceptable" in a letter to Inouye earlier this month.

"Choosing between preserving teacher jobs and supporting vital education reforms is a false choice and would set a dangerous precedent," the letter said.

Or school districts could utilize any number of other cost reduction methods instead of simply cutting teachers. If only that suggestion would become part of the common practice.

Insurance by the Numbers

When the subject these days is health care, that dreaded six-letter "r" word that ends in "form" usually follows. Let’s skip that topic and its consequences. Instead, a few interesting insurance facts, courtesy of The Council of State Governments and its annual The Book of the States.

  • Top five states for percentage of residents covered by insurance: Massachusetts (97%), Hawaii (92.5%), Wisconsin (91.8%), Minnesota (91.7%) and Maine (91.2%)
  • Bottom five states for percentage of residents covered by insurance: Texas (74.8%), New Mexico (77.5%), Florida (79.8%), Mississippi (81.2%) and Louisiana (81.5%)
  • On a regional basis, percent insured are 88.6% in the Midwest, 88.5% in the East, 83.9% in the South and 82.8% in the West
  • Where people get their insurance: 53.7%, employer; 13.2%, Medicaid; 12.1%, Medicare; 4.9%, individual
  • People under age 65: 65% have private insurance and 17% are uninsured
  • Children under age 18: 58% have private insurance, 34% are on a public health plan and 8.9% are uninsured

What do all the numbers mean? Let us know your interpretation.

Here’s What’s Next on Health Care Reform

Congressional floor debate on health care could begin as early as October 13. That’s the goal of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

First, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote this week (work resumes on Tuesday) on its version. The only real suspense is whether Republican Olympia Snowe (Maine) will cross over and vote for the measure. At the same time, Reid and other Senate leaders are trying to combine that proposal with elements of the one approved earlier by the House HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee.

Despite that HELP proposal, the House is still battling over Medicare reimbursement rates, trying to trim $200 billion from the cost of the bill and the final shape of the public option.

This is becoming the defining issue of the year. Immigration was pushed back early, there doesn’t appear to be the support for EFCA and most are now conceding that cap and trade will have to wait until when, and if, the health care debate is settled.

The drama, particularly when the issue hits the floor, will continue; the results are unknown.

Remote Areas to See Broadband Uptick

Stateline.org recently examined state and federal initiatives to bring broadband service to America’s rural areas:

Maine gives out about $1 million about every 10 months to help its residents get high-speed Internet connections. In July, it approved nine projects costing the state almost $800,000 to get 5,000 families hooked up.

States across the country have pursued similar efforts toward creating statewide broadband policies and better access for their residents. But their scale pales in comparison to the $7.2 billion in stimulus money the federal government has committed over the next two years to improve high-speed Internet connections around the country.

Every state is supposed to get a share, and every governor will get a chance to weigh in on how the funds are spent. In this wash of new money, state officials are scurrying to identify the states’ greatest needs, coaching providers applying for stimulus money and developing overarching plans for how to roll out expanded service.

Most of the stimulus money will go toward building out high-speed connections to people in hard-to-reach places. Larry Landis, an Indiana Utility Commissioner active in national broadband efforts, says states have an “obligation to address those who are currently unserved” by broadband.

“What we need is a broadband consensus which nurtures state initiatives to build out to serve the least, the last and the lost,” he said.

The “least,” he says, are the working poor who haven’t been able to afford broadband. The “last” are those “currently on the fringes of the infrastructure to deliver on the promise of broadband.” The “lost” are consumers who could buy broadband but don’t.

Currently, 63 percent of adults have broadband at home, compared to just 7 percent who use dial-up connections, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which, like Stateline.org, is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Half of the U.S. adults who don’t have broadband at home say they don’t see the need for it, the study said. One in five respondents said they didn’t get a high-speed connection because it was too costly.

Also, take a look at how a Noblesville company is working to help Alabama with its broadband efforts in the May/June BizVoice.