Mind Trust CEO: Mayoral control no longer part of IPS transformation plan

When the Mind Trust unveiled its plan to transform Indianapolis Public Schools late last year, a key component was turning control over to the Indianapolis mayor. That’s no longer part of the deal, Mind Trust CEO David Harris said Wednesday.

“It turns out, we were the only people who thought this was a good idea,” Harris said at a Bloomington symposium on urban education. “The reality is, it’s not going anywhere.”

One problem was the fundamental fact that IPS is just one of 11 school districts in Marion County, and its residents are a minority of Indianapolis voters. Another: Mayor Greg Ballard turned out not to be interesting in running the schools.

Harris shared a stage with IPS Superintendent Eugene White, and they found a few points of agreement. Both said Indiana should invest in pre-kindergarten education. And both said it’s crucial to hire and keep good teachers. But, not surprisingly, they expressed different visions for the future of IPS at the Bloomington forum sponsored by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Harris pushed the plan, which the Mind Trust unveiled almost a year ago, to remake IPS into a system of autonomous “opportunity schools,” with responsibility on the principals, not central administration. “We don’t think the people are the problem,” he said. “We think the structure itself needs to change.”

White said it’s naïve to think you can dramatically change results by changing structure. “You don’t go, in urban education, from where we are to utopia,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. It has to be a process.”

On early childhood education, White lamented that Indiana not only doesn’t fund pre-kindergarten programs, it doesn’t require school attendance until age 7. Harris said Indiana is “in the Dark Ages on that front;” it’s one of 11 states that don’t fund pre-K.

That puts the two in alignment with the 7,200 Indianapolis residents who responded to a survey about IPS overseen by Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. “Support for preschool was overwhelming,” the Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott reports.

As for IPS and urban education, White said poverty and family instability stack the deck, and the few high-poverty schools that achieve success are anomalies that can’t be easily replicated. “The No. 1 variable in determining student success,” he said, “it’s not race, ethnicity. It’s money. OK?”

White, by calling for patience and expecting IPS to get credit for improved graduation rates and scattered success, risks being accused of what President George W. Bush famously called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But the Mind Trust’s 150-page proposal barely mentions what IUPUI researcher John Houser referred to Wednesday as “the elephant in the room” – the impact of race and poverty.

Harris said school-level autonomy and accountability and wide-open school choice, combined with a radical shift of resources from the central office to the schools, can remake IPS. But a report by Houser and colleagues at IUPUI’s Center for Urban and Multicultural Education called into question some of the thinking behind the Mind Trust plan – including the claim that decentralization and choice produced big improvements in New York and New Orleans.

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