The Mind Trust’s plan to redesign IPS

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that promotes education reform, released an ambitious proposal Sunday for remaking Indianapolis Public Schools. It certainly has people talking.

Here are some initial thoughts:

— A key feature of the plan involves killing off the IPS school board and turning control of the district over to the Indianapolis mayor and city-county council. Whether this is a good or bad idea, it’s certainly undemocratic. As Heather Gillers points out in the Indianapolis Star, it means “telling voters who live in IPS that they are the only ones in the state who will not be allowed to elect their school board.”

More significantly, the city of Indianapolis and IPS cover very different geographical areas –- the mayor of Indy isn’t the mayor of IPS. The mayor and city-county council are elected by voters from throughout Marion County, but IPS is only one of 11 school districts in the county. About three-fourths of public-school students in Marion County attend non-IPS schools.

The argument for mayoral control is that the mayor will be “politically accountable” for the schools. But even if the mayor screws up, IPS residents may not have the votes to punish him at the polls.

— More than 80 percent of IPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. No other public school district in Indiana comes close to that level of poverty, except for some districts in Lake County (Gary, East Chicago). The Mind Trust plan barely mentions this fact, or the challenges it presents for any scheme to dramatically improve performance in IPS schools.

Sure, poverty can’t be an excuse for failing to do everything possible to improve schools. But as Helene F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, pretending poverty doesn’t matter only gets in the way of serious attempts at reform.

— The Mind Trust plan envisions converting all IPS schools to what it calls “opportunity schools,” with the freedom and flexibility that are usually associated with charter schools. All would be “schools of choice”: parents could send their kids to any school in the district, subject to the IPS somehow playing traffic cop.

It’s the standard market-based ideology of education reform: “Great schools” will thrive because parents send their children there; “failing schools” will close for lack of enrollment. The models for this approach are New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The Mind Trust claims it will be possible to reallocate 80 percent of IPS administrative costs to the schools, leaving the district’s central office to be a low-level provider of services. This seems like a stretch. But even if it isn’t, a whole lot more responsibilities also would flow to the schools. Principals would apparently be responsible for hiring and firing teachers, establishing curriculum, selecting textbooks, arranging for school meals, lining up transportation, securing special-education services, handling the paperwork for federal Title I funds, etc., etc.

Oh, and also finding time to be great instructional leaders.

— According to the Star, the Mind Trust paid $700,000 to have its plan produced by Public Impact, a North Carolina consulting firm. That seems like a hefty price for a product that appears to involve no original research, and with its executive summary packed with reformist jargon about bold visions, reinventing education, empowering parents, great leaders, great teachers, ad nauseum.

Some $500,000 came from the Indiana Department of Education, the Star reports – a lot of public money to spend at a time when state government is cutting services.

— For those of us who don’t live in Indianapolis, it’s probably hard to comprehend the hunger that many civic-minded people must feel for something, anything, that will turn IPS into a great school system. It’s common to hear that “IPS is broken and can’t be fixed,” or words to that effect. Superintendents have raised hopes but produced disappointing results, at least when it comes to test scores. So it’s not surprising that the Mind Trust plan has won praise from folks on the left, right and center.

But as education historian Diane Ravitch often warns, there are no “silver bullets” in education. There are no miracle cures for poverty. Making a difference in the lives of children is hard work that takes time, resources, dedication and sustained focus.


5 thoughts on “The Mind Trust’s plan to redesign IPS

  1. good post, Steve. this is the first step to total loss of local control of schools.

    Giving that power to the mayor turns him into a contractor of corporate for-profit operators in the ed market.

    If this happens then the rest of the state will follow if the state has anything to say about it. Even though we would argue a large urban city isn’t like the rest of the state in terms of school management it would still set the precedent for political hijacking and profit-making.

    If the state doesn’t want to be responsible for its citizens’ education that’s one thing (a very weak thing); but what the state wants, finally, is to sell schools like it sells toll roads. Not to benefit Indiana, but to benefit a few men who profit.

  2. Actually, Douglas, I think the point is to return control of the schools to the most local level–the schools themselves. Removing the elected school board seems counterproductive to that goal, though. However, IPS and the school board in particular are so rife with problems that it may be a good solution at this point. There’s no reason to think it would “spread” to the rest of the state when legislative approval is needed.

    • Unfortunately, that is what you are asked to believe. Control is in the hands of Power and Wealth at all times. There is no “local” community control in play here. There may be an idea of “local” schools but those in charge will be dancing to a different, political and ethical tune. Profit.

      Schools will always be failures when control is at stake. This is a market game and failure is important to it. As schools are taken over their “next failure” will not matter, it will be a business write-off and if a charter school fails another can be created in its place…not to succeed in education, but to find a way to profit.

      Further, we created a school system to raise factory workers–we don’t want factory workers to think. So it seems to me that schools are a success by that measure.

      Finally, if we agree to that point, we might say, how can we recreate the schools to fit our community needs. We don’t need to say, how can we let private companies pretend to innovate with technology to serve business ends? We don’t need to count “creating workers” for data-entry factories as a goal.

      There is a real chance here to take over schools on other terms–the terms of the community good. The terms of human empathy. But also the terms of “anti-coercion” and “anti-control”–frankly, why should we want to “make” our children dullards and drones for the employers of the world? Let’s make a different way of being a social animal than what we’ve been trained to be by our economy and politics.

  3. Pingback: School Matters: “The Mind Trust’s plan to redesign IPS” | Hoosier Ed

  4. Excellent post! I agree that the idea that this is about more local control is a ruse. In addition, don’t forget that Mindtrust gets $7.5 million of taxpayer money to “incubate” new charters. There is some real, engaged interest growing in the community to speak back to these efforts and my hope is that we can organize and get others voices heard. Thanks!

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