The Mind Trust’s provocative new report on the future of Indianapolis Public Schools is sure to lead to a vigorous debate over how the district should operate, including whom the public should hold accountable for its performance—the publicly elected board that controls it now or the mayor of Indianapolis.
That’s a question for the public—more specifically the Legislature—to decide, but there’s little to suggest an elected board is still the best way to govern IPS. And it’s all but certain The Mind Trust’s recommendations would go nowhere with the current board.
The Indianapolis-based education reform group, in its report prepared for the Indiana Department of Education, lays out a vision for a decentralized IPS with a lean administrative staff that funnels more of the district’s money to schools.
The central office staff would shrink from 513, a number the current administration claims is inflated, to just 65.
Reducing the central office staff would free an additional $188 million of the district’s $540 million budget. The money would be shifted to schools, providing for universal preschool, higher pay for the best teachers, and reforms implemented at the school level. The goal of The Mind Trust plan is to create a network of autonomously operated, high-performing schools.
To implement the reforms the report recommends, the Legislature must reassign control of IPS from the elected board to the mayor. The report suggests the district could be run by a five-member board—three appointed by the mayor and one each by the caucus of the City-County Council’s two major parties.
Initial criticism of The Mind Trust plan focused on its call to dissolve the publicly elected board, thus denying the public a say in the district’s affairs.
In a perfect world of high voter engagement, that might be a valid concern. But if the district’s voters were playing the role they should in overseeing IPS, there might not even be a need to reform the district. Voters would have long ago taken stock of the district’s chronic shortcomings and revamped the board to bring about change.
As it is, voter participation in the board elections is dismal; only 9 percent of the district’s registered voters cast a ballot in 2010. And the board is saddled with some entrenched members, one of whom has served for an astounding 35 years.
The seven members of the board are to be commended for their public service, but the many problems IPS faces are too complex to be fixed by incremental changes overseen by a board that too often serves as a rubber stamp for the district’s superintendent.
Candidates for mayor often spend a lot of time in their campaigns talking about the state of public education in the city, but the mayor has no direct power to influence the performance of the city’s largest district.
The Mind Trust plan would change that by giving the mayor real authority and would put public education front and center in the city’s most-followed political race. That’s the kind of attention IPS needs and the district’s children deserve.•
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