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.