How education will rank as an issue in this year's race for governor isn't yet clear, but Indiana schools play an interesting role in a bit of gubernatorial trivia. Long before Mitch Daniels or Mike Pence set their sights on the Statehouse office, their paths intersected at a discussion on that very topic.
The event was a WNDY-TV special – part of a series called "After Dinner," with Pence as host. After his second unsuccessful run for Congress in 1990, Pence headed up the Fort Wayne-based Indiana Policy Review and began hosting a radio talk show and an occasional TV special.
A transcript I have for the program -- which I remember watching -- doesn't include a date, but I suspect it was 1995. The guests were Daniels, then a top executive with Eli Lilly; John Mutz, former Republican lieutenant governor; Fred Klipsch of Lanham and Associates; Mickey Maurer of Indiana Business Journal; Chris Duffy of Wabash Valley Broadcasting; Charlotte Fischer, CEO of Paul Harris stores; and Steve Hilbert, who was the swaggering CEO of Conseco Insurance before he was forced out over an investment that drove the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The premise of the "After Dinner" show was that a group of successful business types would get together for an elaborate meal and then hold forth on important issues. What I recall from watching the show was that it was taped at Hilbert's ostentatious estate on North Meridian Street in Indianapolis, where a tour of the over-the-top estate preceded the discussion. Pence opened with a question directed at Hilbert, about the "most robust economy in three, going on four decades" (These were the Clinton years in Washington, of course.)
After praising Indiana's economy as "wonderful" (these were the Bayh years in Indianapolis), Hilbert zeroes in on the schools:
"I think we've got some real problems, as well," he said. "And the number one problem that is going to be a disaster for this state is if we don't fix our education system. … If we don't develop a better product in our school system, our economy is just going to go to hell in a handbag. There is no doubt about it."
Pence asks of the others, "Agreement? Disagreement?"
"Totally agree! Totally agree! Have to agree!" the transcript notes.
Pence appears to be surprised by the comment, noting that "a lot of people in Indiana wouldn't associate the state of education in Indiana with economic concerns."
But the dinner guests eagerly pick up on Hilbert's observation.
Mitch Daniels: "I think business is going to do what it is increasingly doing elsewhere where the public sector has failed. You know crime is down in a lot of American cities, not because the public sector got better, but because business has paid for its own private security and cleaned up the block, the merchants cleaned up its own block. Increasingly, including right here in Indiana, we're seeing business go to funding private scholarships and non-government schools for poor kids who otherwise aren't going to get the chance to reach their potential. And, it's got to happen. There is no reason even debating the abysmal, atrocious failure of the public school monopoly anymore."
As the CEOs begin to pile on, Pence again expresses surprise. Hilbert complains about the Carmel schools, where you can see "pink, blue, purple hair, spiked hair – every conceivable type of child that you never thought you would see in the Carmel school system."
Chris Duffy interjects with blame for parents and Hilbert, who now hawks Australian Gold suntan products, enthusiastically agrees.
The only real pushback comes from Mickey Maurer, who notes that he's a "firm believer" in public education.
"I put all of my kids through public school," he says. "And think that the Carmel school system did a darned good job with my kids."
Pence returns to Daniels for comment about improving schools:
"In 1983, somebody wrote that, if a foreign power wanted to undermine the United States, they would start by giving us the public school system we have today," Daniels says, "Mickey, I'm a public school kid and my kids are in public school. But, it isn't going to happen. We've lost a couple of generations of kids already and we just can't lose anymore. And so I'm an advocate and personal participant in a multiple of causes to help at least the few kids we can to find schools where there is some safety, some values, some discipline, and some standards. And I hope the public schools will come along, but I'm not prepared to wait long."
Hilbert: "Mitch, for either IPS and Carmel, is that a matter of breaking them up into smaller school systems?"
Daniels: "I'd apply the same solution that works everywhere in life but this, mainly the free air of competition and let the chips fall. I think the public schools will improve and might not break up, but as long as they are insulated from any meaningful competition, as long as kids are made to go to the school that some bureaucrat tells them to, we are not going to make any progress."
More than 15 years later, Daniels is finishing his second term as governor and the public schools are getting a staggering dose of his "free air of competition." With Pence seeking to succeed him, voters might want to begin asking if the former TV host's views are the same as his guests at the long-ago "dinner party."