Indiana toppled Florida as the leading education-reform state in 2011, according to a competition conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on Thursday.
In a vote by "Ed Reform Idol" judges as well as in-studio and online audiences, Indiana finished first among five finalists. The other states were Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Florida, a perennial leader in school innovation since Gov. Jeb Bush launched reforms in 1999, pushed ahead in 2011 when the Legislature abolished tenure for newly hired teachers, established a performance-based pay system, provided additional pay for high-need subject areas and at-risk schools, and further expanded charter schools and digital learning.
But the failure by Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers to address collective bargaining in public schools appeared to set Florida back, as Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin all confronted their politically powerful teacher unions this year.
"We'll tackle collective bargaining next year," said Patricia Levesque, who represented Florida as executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future.
While Florida fared well in the judges' comments, Jeanne Allen of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform suggested that the state may be "resting on its laurels" from reforms instituted in previous years.
Allen also questioned how the state will implement the smorgasbord of reforms passed by the 2011 Legislature, including teacher evaluation and compensation systems.
Levesque, who also heads Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, responded that improved parental notification and stricter accountability programs will stop the "dance of lemons" that allows deficient educators to bounce from one campus to another without consequence.
But the judges, selected by the conservative Fordham Institute, were more impressed by Indiana, which abolished collective bargaining for benefits and work rules.
"You can't do [reform] without changing collective bargaining," Indiana schools superintendent Tony Bennett said of his state's progress.
Under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Hoosier State curbed union clout and collective bargaining without the political backlash experienced in Ohio and Wisconsin. Ohio's Senate Bill 5 could be repealed by a public referendum later this year and Wisconsin has been wracked by union-fueled recall votes.
Meantime, Indiana expanded charter campuses, removed caps on virtual schools and passed what Bennett called "the nation's most expansive voucher program" for low-income students.
And burnishing fiscally conservative credentials, Bennett pointed out that his state Department of Education has just 250 employees overseeing a K-12 system of more than 1 million pupils.
Those accomplishments prompted Matthew Ladner, senior adviser of policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, to declare: "Indiana may be the pupil that has exceeded the master [Florida]."
After the program, Ladner told Sunshine State News, "Dr. Bennett accurately quoted me, with the key word being 'may' because the Indiana reforms remain in the process of being implemented, so the devil is in the details.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so what Indiana has done is a tribute to the overwhelming success of Floridas reforms. Florida is still in the lead based upon outstanding reforms and years of successful implementation, but Indiana is certainly making a huge effort to close the gap."
In recognition of the reform movement pushed by Bush, Bennett said, "None of us would be here without Governor Bush and what he started."
On virtually every academic indictor, Florida's classroom performance has markedly improved during the past decade. The state's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have gone from near the bottom of the barrel to above national averages. Minority students have posted some of the sharpest learning gains in the country, with stronger participation in Advanced Placement courses.
Michael Petrilli, a Fordham researcher who moderated Thursday's "Idol" competition, said hard-line partisan resistance by union-funded Democrats continues to retard education-reform efforts in many states.
"Getting rank-and-file Democrats to buck their union patrons is a quixotic quest. Asking Republicans to embrace significant reform is a no-brainer," Petrilli observed.
In the absence of bipartisan consensus, Petrilli notes that GOP-dominated legislatures and governors continue to move forward.
"Floridas 10-year experience with path-breaking reform demonstrates that controversial, partisan laws can still lead to substantial progress," he said.
The Florida Education Association, which has fought virtually every school-reform measure in Tallahassee, did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.
Levesque, who did not elaborate on her collective-bargaining comment, issued a statement applauding Indiana and the other states for their work.
"Because of Indianas reforms, millions of students will be better equipped to succeed in school and beyond.
"The bold education reform represented in the five states that competed for the titlespeaks to the commitment and dedication of education leaders and advocates across our nation. Each state deserves recognition for these significant accomplishments.
"Student-centered reform is sweeping across our nation. We applaud the reform leaders in every state that are courageously advancing bold reforms that will improve the lives of students across America."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.