More high-quality school options needed to give all kids opportunity

Guest blogger David Harris is the founder and chief executive officer of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that is driving innovative K-12 education reform in Indianapolis. Under his leadership, The Mind Trust recruits proven programs to Indianapolis, incubates life-changing schools and initiatives, and develops bold plans for systemic change. Since its launch in 2006, The Mind Trust has impacted 37,500 students through its work and raised twenty-seven million dollars.

The Mind Trust's goal is to ensure every child in Indianapolis has the opportunity to receive an excellent education. We believe that dramatically increasing the number of high-quality schools in our city is critical to this mission.

The need for more high-quality public schools in Indianapolis is sizable. Less than half of students in the city’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, meet basic state standards on both math and English portions of Indiana’s standardized test. Less than two-thirds graduate on time.

The need for more high-quality public schools in Indianapolis is sizable.

The charter schools authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office have made significant strides at boosting student outcomes. On average last year, those charter schools exceeded the Indianapolis Public Schools pass rates in both math and English on the state’s standardized test by 13 percentage points.

But the charter-school supply is not adequate to meet the demand for the schools. Nearly 1,000 students are left on waiting lists for charter schools in Indianapolis each year. A handful of high-performing district schools provide some parents in the Indianapolis Public Schools district with desirable options. But the capacity of those magnet schools is limited, so those options are available to only a small fraction of the IPS population.

Last year, The Mind Trust undertook two new initiatives to address the need for high-quality schools in our city. In December we released a report proposing a dramatic overhaul of Indianapolis' largest school district. It recommends shifting control of spending and decision-making from a centralized bureaucracy to individual schools. Our report also suggests restructuring district spending to invest in attracting talented teachers, school leaders and new schools to the district and providing all four-year-olds within the district access to pre-K.  We believe that this overhaul of city schools will radically improve the educational prospects of Indianapolis children and serve as a model for urban education transformation throughout the country.

We have sparked a robust community conversation about this district-overhaul plan and its recommendations, and there are a variety of pathways to getting it implemented. In the meantime, we’re moving forward with a separate initiative that will increase the number of high-quality public school options by enticing excellent leaders to Indianapolis to launch networks of great charter schools.

In October, The Mind Trust launched a nationally unique Charter School Incubator. Through it we are awarding million-dollar grants to talented teams who want to start innovative, new charter schools or replicate proven charter models in Indianapolis. Other cities across the U.S. have started charter school incubators, but ours is an especially attractive opportunity. That’s partly because the one million dollars we’re offering teams in start-up capital is four times as large as the next biggest award, and also because we’re investing in teams, not just individuals, to launch entire networks of charter schools.

Each team we select will commit to launching networks of new charter schools in Indianapolis. Over the next five to seven years, we expect the incubator will help to start fifteen to twenty excellent charter schools serving thousands of students.

In the first round of applications, we received an outpouring of interest in the program. Thirty-five teams applied for the awards, with thirty-one of them hailing from eighteen states across the U.S. We will make up to three awards this summer, with plans for additional awards in years to come.

We must do all we can to increase the number of high-quality public schools in our urban core. And we need our traditional public school sector to join in the transformation of urban education by dismantling the barriers to creating high-quality schools.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

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