In Indianapolis, district overhaul needed to accelerate change

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Big changes to edugovernance could translate to big progress for Indianapolis.
Photo by Rob Annis.

We started The Mind Trust in 2006 with an ambitious goal: to
create an ecosystem in Indianapolis
where bold ideas to transform K-12 education could thrive. Six years later,
that vision is coming to fruition.

We have recruited well-established programs such as Teach
For America, College Summit and The New Teacher Project to Indianapolis. We also have invested millions
in fellowships for social entrepreneurs who have come up with bold,
outside-the-box initiatives for improving student outcomes. Both efforts have
helped to build a network of talented leaders in Indianapolis who are working to address some
of the most pressing problems in K-12 education.

We also launched a Charter School Incubator last fall to
provide organizational support for leaders to start networks of best-in-class
charter schools. Over the next few years, that effort will spawn dozens of
top-notch schools and provide families in Indiana’s capital city with more
high-quality education options. And we’re sharing lessons learned and
collaborating with cities around the country through a network of 19 peer
organizations called the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust
(CEE-Trust).

Meanwhile, state-level leaders such as Governor Mitch
Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett have successfully
pushed reforms that make it easier to open charter schools, tie teacher pay to
performance, and rein in teachers unions’ collective bargaining authority.
Those changes have helped to create a climate conducive to reform in the city
and state.

All of those elements are critical building blocks to help
our city become a place where all students, regardless of background, have
access to an excellent education. But more dramatic steps are needed to drive
long-term change and fully unleash the power of the entrepreneurial culture
we’ve established around education reform in Indianapolis.

That is why the Mind Trust recently proposed a dramatic
overhaul in how Indianapolis’s
largest school district operates. Our report, “Creating Opportunity
Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform Indianapolis Public Schools
,” proposes
changes that would be among the most revolutionary of any urban district in the
U.S.
Our plan has sparked significant conversations in Indianapolis and other cities. Most recently,
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson offered a bold plan for revamping his city’s K-12
system that cited our report and set forth similar prescriptions.

Under our Opportunity Schools plan, $188 million would shift
from the district’s highly centralized bureaucracy to individual schools. That
would virtually double the amount of per-pupil funding available at the school
level—from $6,600 per student to $12,000 a—and would empower school leaders to
spend strategically in ways that advance student achievement. They could
increase pay for great teachers, for example, provide wraparound services for
students, or extend the school day or year. Along with funding, school leaders
would have autonomy over all the key functions in their schools, including
staffing, curriculum, calendar, services, and programs.

$188 million would shift
from the district’s highly centralized bureaucracy to individual schools.

Our report also calls for transforming the central
administration from a compliance-driven bureaucracy to a lean,
accountability-focused office that makes strategic investments in a few high-impact
initiatives. For example, we think the central office should invest $14 million
annually to provide universal pre-school, giving all 4-year-olds the
opportunity to thrive once they get to kindergarten. We also think the district
should invest $2.5 million per year to recruit talented teachers and school
leaders. And the central office should spend $7.5 million each year to help
launch new schools so that qualified educators, nonprofits and entrepreneurial
citizens would have the support they need to build the next generation of
excellent schools and replace those that are not meeting high standards.
Because all of these funds would be reallocated from what is currently spent by
a bloated central office, this more strategic way of investing public dollars
would be budget-neutral and wouldn’t require any new taxes.

Importantly, the Opportunity Schools plan calls for
providing teachers and leaders at excelling schools the autonomy to make
decisions about what and how students are taught. In order to earn and keep
such freedom, they would be required to meet high benchmarks and maintain
top-notch performance. Our plan would allocate decision-making authority to
those who are best poised to determine things such as curriculum and calendar.

To accomplish and sustain the initiatives in our plan, we
propose eliminating the current school board—and its diffuse power
structure—and putting the Indianapolis
mayor in charge of the district. Under our model, the mayor would appoint the
majority of a five-member school board, with the city’s legislative body
appointing the remainder. That board would be responsible for appointing a
superintendent to lead the district.

A yearlong review of alternative governance models led us to
the conclusion that providing accountability from a highly visible elected
official is the only way to execute a plan this bold and have it succeed. Urban
school boards nationwide have failed to govern well, in part because their
members’ narrow voting constituency makes them more susceptible than mayors to
influence by special interests. And past efforts have also shown how difficult
it is to achieve reform without a governance overhaul. For example, in 1995, the legislature empowered IPS
to make great changes by limiting IPS teachers' collective bargaining rights to
wages and benefits. But the elected school board continued to act in the same
way, making no use of its new freedom. The missing ingredient was a change in
governance.

We at The Mind Trust are pleased with Indianapolis’s evolution into a community
ripe for a major education transformation. Our efforts have built a robust
network of change-agents and a culture of bold thinking—both necessary
ingredients for driving system-wide reform. We’re seeing the impact every day;
organizations affiliated with The Mind Trust are helping shift district policy
to end seniority-based teacher layoffs, closing the summer-learning gap for
disadvantaged students, and improving college access for youngsters across the
city.

But we’re not satisfied. Key community leaders are now
considering how best to engage the community in an in-depth conversation about
ideas proposed in our Opportunity Schools plan and how IPS can be restructured
to better serve its students.

To create the kind of big-picture transformation that our
community desperately needs, we must look critically at the broken system that
continues to produce results far below the high expectations we should hold for
all students. Only 45 percent of students in Indianapolis Public Schools meet
state standards on the English language arts and math portions of state tests,
and only about 60 percent graduate on time.

Changing that paradigm requires the ambitious ideas and
innovative thinking proposed in our Opportunity Schools plan. It calls for a
system in which results for children are put above the entrenched adult
interests and bureaucratic routine, and families are provided with myriad
desirable options for where to send their children to school.

In a recent editorial, The
Indianapolis Star
wrote, “The Mind Trust has done this city a tremendous
favor with today's release of its dramatic plan to overhaul Indianapolis Public
Schools.”

We hope that sentiment will help drive an important
discussion about the urgent need for change —and the bold thinking needed to
make it happen.

David Harris is
founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, an education reform organization based in Indianapolis.

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