New ideas at Indianapolis Public Schools

Lewis Ferebee is doing so many things right in his new gig as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools. Let’s hope his support for legislation to let IPS partner with charter schools and try new methods to improve district schools is one of them.

He is making a persuasive case for the measure, House Bill 1321, by arguing that IPS needs every tool it can find to meet the needs of its mostly low-income clientele and to compete for students with charter schools and voucher-eligible private schools.

But he is walking a fine line in his efforts to promote the legislation without alienating supporters of public schools, especially teachers – a sign of how polarized Indiana’s education politics have become after years of union-bashing and IPS-bashing.

HB 1321 would give IPS authority to do two things:

  • Convert low-performing schools to “innovation network” schools, which would continue to serve IPS neighborhoods but would have charter school-like autonomy to hire staff, lengthen the school day or year, and change curriculum and instruction.
  • Lease empty or underutilized buildings to charter schools, whose students would count as part of IPS for purposes of funding and state accountability.

“IPS supports HB 1321 because it will provide the district with innovative tools to improve academic achievement, increase student enrollment and provide families with a greater range of choices to meet their child’s educational needs,” says an IPS flier.

Everyone knows IPS has been a school district under siege.Decimated by middle-class flight from the central city, it lost another 12,000 students in the past decade, many of them to charter schools and private schools. It has a $23 million budget deficit and may have to close neighborhood schools. Teacher pay hasn’t increased since 2008.

More than half of IPS schools got a D or F last year from the state, not surprising in such a high-poverty district. But IPS also has remarkably high-performing schools. Could its other schools replicate that success with the right leadership and support? Or will it take something stronger, like the strategies in HB 1321?

The House passed the bill, 54-37, over determined opposition from state teachers unions. And the unions have legitimate concerns. If IPS schools convert to innovation network schools, staffing changes are likely. Some teachers may lose their jobs. On the other hand, if IPS keeps losing students to charter schools and private schools and has to close neighborhood schools, teachers may lose their jobs anyway.

One positive development: As introduced, HB 1321 would have prohibited collective bargaining by teachers in innovation schools. It was amended in the House to permit bargaining, though teachers at such schools could admittedly be hard to organize.

And charter schools are not going away, especially in Indianapolis where the political infrastructure and community ideology behind “school choice” are about as powerful as anywhere in the country. Ferebee’s position is that it’s better for IPS to collaborate and use the partnerships to its advantage than to keep fighting a war it has been losing.

Also, charter schools and their advocates have long had their eyes on IPS’ partially empty schools. Gov. Mike Pence, in his legislative agenda, made questionable claims about the cost of maintaining the district’s “vacant properties” and suggested the state could take over underutilized buildings and give them to charter schools.

Ferebee’s embrace of HB 1321 headed off that idea. If charter schools occupy some IPS buildings, they will be charters that IPS selects and wants to work with.

Finally, it’s important to remember Ferebee was hired by and answers to a school board that was elected by the voters of IPS. Candidates who won in 2012 made no secret of their desire to shake things up and try new approaches.

We’re seeing the result: It’s called democracy.

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