Indiana Gov. Mike Pence visited Congress on Wednesday to tout his state as a national leader in education and to express his support for a legislative proposal that would diminish the federal government's role in schools.
Indiana has the largest school voucher program in the country, which has expanded under Pence. His education record also includes more state money for charter schools, the launch of a pilot program for pre-kindergarten, and an emphasis on career and technical learning in high schools. His legislative proposals for 2015 call for modest increases in education funding, particularly in the areas of vouchers and charter schools. He detailed his education efforts Feb. 4 at hearing held by the U.S. House committee on Education and the Workforce.
His remarks came the day after Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the committee’s chairman, introduced legislation that would replace the No Child Left Behind law and discourage the U.S. Education Secretary from offering financial incentives to states for adopting the Common Core standards. That bill is co-sponsored by an Indiana Congressman, Todd Rokita. Pence voted against No Child Left Behind when he was in Congress and voiced his support for Kline and Rokita's bill.
“I believe that whether it is standards, whether it is curriculum, whether it is textbooks, that those ought to be decided and those decisions resolved at the state and, more preferably, the local level,” Pence said. “I really do believe that to the extent that this Congress can give states more freedom [and] more flexibility to innovate, our children, our states, and our people will be the beneficiaries.”
Under the previous Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, Indiana was on course to adopt the Common Core academic standards, guidelines for K-12 math and reading. In 2013, Pence stopped that process and signed a bill to put in place similar standards under a different name. The change nearly resulted in sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education, but ultimately federal officials gave Indiana a waiver.
Pence is one of several Republican governors who may seek the party’s nomination for president in 2016. A supporter in the Indiana Senate went so far as to introduce legislation that would allow Pence to run for re-election while pursuing the presidency -- currently forbidden under state law. (The proposal is believed to be dead in committee.) Pence is halfway through his first term after serving 12 years in Congress and has said he will wait until his state's legislative session ends in April to decide whether he'll seek higher office.
Indiana’s voucher program is already the largest in the nation, allowing almost 30,000 students to attend private schools with public funding, translating to about 3 percent of all Indiana children served by public schools. Even students who have never attended public schools and would not otherwise have to attend failing school may receive the vouchers. In his State of the State address in January, Pence called for lifting the cap on the dollar amount for vouchers and raising the cap on how many families can receive the vouchers. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia offer some kind of state-funded school voucher program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The editorial board at the state’s largest newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, praised Pence on prioritizing education in his annual address, calling it “easily the most comprehensive education agenda proposed by an Indiana governor in at least 20 years.” However, the Star’s editorial board was among many critics who say the voucherization of public schools is an experimental policy without a clear record of success. (Pence, for his part, argued that the policies are working because both test scores and the high school graduation rate have been trending upward over the past few years, but the same can be said of the nation as a whole.)
Indiana House Democratic leader Scott Pelath describes the vouchers as part of Pence's "anti-education agenda" because they could hurt public schools by siphoning away per-pupil tuition dollars and putting them in private institutions.
Democrats at the U.S. House committee hearing pressed Pence on this concern.
"Can you share with me the thought behind [...] giving the taxpayer dollars to people who are already attending other [private] schools -- how that helps improve public schools?" asked Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan.
"I just simply believe that competition makes everybody better," Pence said. "Allowing parents to send their children to a different public school, to a different public charter school or [...] a private school, [it] actually improves education outcomes overall."
Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, also a Democrat, challenged Pence on his decision not to apply for up to $80 million in federal grants over four years to develop preschool programs for low-income children. Instead, the Pence administration went ahead with testing a pilot in five counties, using $10 million in state funds. He's asking for two years of additional funding in his current budget proposal. The federal support might have meant up to 2,000 children receiving preschool, instead of the 1,000 projected to enroll next fall.
"I did not want to invite federal resources to expand a program before it was even started," Pence said. "We’re going to look in the future, I can assure you, for ways to expand opportunities for quality pre-k education."