The Indiana Chamber of Commerce missed a huge opportunity the other day.
The chamber had a chance to transform Indiana’s bitter and unproductive battles over education into a discussion that might lead somewhere and help this state and its people.
But the voice of Hoosier business let the moment go by—in fact, it probably added to the bitterness—so everyone in Indiana is condemned to still more angry and pointless wrangling over the state’s schools.
Here’s what happened.
The chamber released a report, “Indiana’s Leaking Talent Pipeline.” That report noted that our state performs abysmally when it comes to retaining and attracting talent. The chamber cited a CNBC report that ranked Indiana 48th when it came to alluring qualified workers to come work and live here.
The chamber then veered to blame schools for this sorry showing. The report said Indiana had too few students going on to get certificates or degrees beyond high school and too many school districts.
The chamber’s verdict, as usual, was that Indiana’s education system was a failing business.
Educators, understandably and predictably, reacted with fury.
Three former state superintendents of public instruction—Suellen Reed, Glenda Ritz and Jennifer McCormick—dismissed the chamber’s report as nothing more than hack work. The head of the Indiana State Teachers Association attacked the chamber’s findings as driven by ideological, partisan and even financial motivations.
And this state settled for another season of protracted siege warfare—with our children being used as both cannon fodder and targets.
There are many frustrating things about Indiana’s education debates, but perhaps the most maddening is that both sides in the struggle have valid points.
But neither is being heard because there is just too much noise accompanying their ongoing strife.
The chamber’s overarching point is a pertinent one. In many ways, Indiana’s schools are not serving Hoosier students, businesses or taxpayers well. There is significant room for improvement.
That said, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce is in no position to point fingers.
For almost 20 years, the chamber has been the driving force when it comes to shaping education policy in Indiana.
Running roughshod over the concerns of and objections from teachers and many parents, the chamber and its allies in the Indiana General Assembly and elsewhere have rammed through one supposed “reform” after another.
They created the most expansive and expensive school voucher program in the nation. They encouraged charter schools to pop up and often blow away like weeds in an untended garden. While claiming to empower parents, they denied those same parents the power to choose their own education chief by making the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than an elected position. They changed the state’s standardized testing system again and again, sometimes more often than once a year, so that the data collected from the tests are close to worthless.
They also took pains to make sure that many of their reforms were exempt from the assessment and accountability measures they imposed on traditional public schools.
So, if the leaders of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce don’t think the state’s schools are up to snuff and they want to hold someone responsible, all they need to do is find a mirror.
In fact, that is what the chamber’s leaders should have done.
That is, if they want to move the discussion forward.
The challenges facing Indiana’s schools are neither easy nor simple. They will not yield to magic-bullet or wishful-thinking solutions, which is what the self-proclaimed education reformers championed by the chamber often have offered.
Those challenges surely won’t be met if we don’t find some way to get everyone on the same side of the table.
Even more important, we need to make it clear that admitting to a mistake isn’t a sin or a character flaw. It’s the natural byproduct of trying new things—an essential component of innovation.
It falls to the chamber to send those signals and set that tone because the chamber has dominated the education debate for at least two decades.
But the chamber didn’t do that with this latest report.
Instead, it scored some political points.
And missed the opportunity to do something much more important.