In Indianapolis, district overhaul needed to accelerate change
Big changes to edugovernance could translate to big progress for Indianapolis.
Photo by Rob Annis.
We started The Mind Trust in 2006 with an ambitious goal: to create an ecosystem in Indianapolis where bold ideas to transform K-12 education could thrive. Six years later, that vision is coming to fruition.
We have recruited well-established programs such as Teach For America, College Summit and The New Teacher Project to Indianapolis. We also have invested millions in fellowships for social entrepreneurs who have come up with bold, outside-the-box initiatives for improving student outcomes. Both efforts have helped to build a network of talented leaders in Indianapolis who are working to address some of the most pressing problems in K-12 education.
We also launched a Charter School Incubator last fall to provide organizational support for leaders to start networks of best-in-class charter schools. Over the next few years, that effort will spawn dozens of top-notch schools and provide families in Indiana’s capital city with more high-quality education options. And we’re sharing lessons learned and collaborating with cities around the country through a network of 19 peer organizations called the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust).
Meanwhile, state-level leaders such as Governor Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett have successfully pushed reforms that make it easier to open charter schools, tie teacher pay to performance, and rein in teachers unions’ collective bargaining authority. Those changes have helped to create a climate conducive to reform in the city and state.
All of those elements are critical building blocks to help our city become a place where all students, regardless of background, have access to an excellent education. But more dramatic steps are needed to drive long-term change and fully unleash the power of the entrepreneurial culture we’ve established around education reform in Indianapolis.
That is why the Mind Trust recently proposed a dramatic overhaul in how Indianapolis’s largest school district operates. Our report, “Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform Indianapolis Public Schools,” proposes changes that would be among the most revolutionary of any urban district in the U.S. Our plan has sparked significant conversations in Indianapolis and other cities. Most recently, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson offered a bold plan for revamping his city’s K-12 system that cited our report and set forth similar prescriptions.
Under our Opportunity Schools plan, $188 million would shift from the district’s highly centralized bureaucracy to individual schools. That would virtually double the amount of per-pupil funding available at the school level—from $6,600 per student to $12,000 a—and would empower school leaders to spend strategically in ways that advance student achievement. They could increase pay for great teachers, for example, provide wraparound services for students, or extend the school day or year. Along with funding, school leaders would have autonomy over all the key functions in their schools, including staffing, curriculum, calendar, services, and programs.
$188 million would shift from the district’s highly centralized bureaucracy to individual schools.
Our report also calls for transforming the central administration from a compliance-driven bureaucracy to a lean, accountability-focused office that makes strategic investments in a few high-impact initiatives. For example, we think the central office should invest $14 million annually to provide universal pre-school, giving all 4-year-olds the opportunity to thrive once they get to kindergarten. We also think the district should invest $2.5 million per year to recruit talented teachers and school leaders. And the central office should spend $7.5 million each year to help launch new schools so that qualified educators, nonprofits and entrepreneurial citizens would have the support they need to build the next generation of excellent schools and replace those that are not meeting high standards. Because all of these funds would be reallocated from what is currently spent by a bloated central office, this more strategic way of investing public dollars would be budget-neutral and wouldn’t require any new taxes.
Importantly, the Opportunity Schools plan calls for providing teachers and leaders at excelling schools the autonomy to make decisions about what and how students are taught. In order to earn and keep such freedom, they would be required to meet high benchmarks and maintain top-notch performance. Our plan would allocate decision-making authority to those who are best poised to determine things such as curriculum and calendar.
To accomplish and sustain the initiatives in our plan, we propose eliminating the current school board—and its diffuse power structure—and putting the Indianapolis mayor in charge of the district. Under our model, the mayor would appoint the majority of a five-member school board, with the city’s legislative body appointing the remainder. That board would be responsible for appointing a superintendent to lead the district.
A yearlong review of alternative governance models led us to the conclusion that providing accountability from a highly visible elected official is the only way to execute a plan this bold and have it succeed. Urban school boards nationwide have failed to govern well, in part because their members’ narrow voting constituency makes them more susceptible than mayors to influence by special interests. And past efforts have also shown how difficult it is to achieve reform without a governance overhaul. For example, in 1995, the legislature empowered IPS to make great changes by limiting IPS teachers' collective bargaining rights to wages and benefits. But the elected school board continued to act in the same way, making no use of its new freedom. The missing ingredient was a change in governance.
We at The Mind Trust are pleased with Indianapolis’s evolution into a community ripe for a major education transformation. Our efforts have built a robust network of change-agents and a culture of bold thinking—both necessary ingredients for driving system-wide reform. We’re seeing the impact every day; organizations affiliated with The Mind Trust are helping shift district policy to end seniority-based teacher layoffs, closing the summer-learning gap for disadvantaged students, and improving college access for youngsters across the city.
But we’re not satisfied. Key community leaders are now considering how best to engage the community in an in-depth conversation about ideas proposed in our Opportunity Schools plan and how IPS can be restructured to better serve its students.
To create the kind of big-picture transformation that our community desperately needs, we must look critically at the broken system that continues to produce results far below the high expectations we should hold for all students. Only 45 percent of students in Indianapolis Public Schools meet state standards on the English language arts and math portions of state tests, and only about 60 percent graduate on time.
Changing that paradigm requires the ambitious ideas and innovative thinking proposed in our Opportunity Schools plan. It calls for a system in which results for children are put above the entrenched adult interests and bureaucratic routine, and families are provided with myriad desirable options for where to send their children to school.
In a recent editorial, The Indianapolis Star wrote, “The Mind Trust has done this city a tremendous favor with today's release of its dramatic plan to overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools.”
We hope that sentiment will help drive an important discussion about the urgent need for change —and the bold thinking needed to make it happen.
David Harris is founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, an education reform organization based in Indianapolis.
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