After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.
A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.
And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.
The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.
“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”
The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.
During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.
Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.
According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.
The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.
Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.
And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.
Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.
In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.
Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.
For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.
McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.
And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.
The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.
Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.
That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.
“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”
It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.
“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”
Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.
Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.
But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.
Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.
“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.
“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”
Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.
It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.
“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.
It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.
But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.
Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.
Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.
“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”