Multiple well-informed and -intentioned efforts are under way to reform Indianapolis Public Schools. Indeed, in our recent mayoral election, both candidates claimed education as a priority.
However, neither candidate made the observation that the Mayor’s Office should stimulate innovation and reform in all schools in the county, not just in IPS. Absent a focus on county-wide educational reform, these efforts may address underachievement within IPS but fail to address needs of top academic performers, the large academic middle, and underperformers in all Marion County schools.
Education innovation and reform cannot be limited to the outdated IPS boundaries.
When Unigov was proposed in the 1960s, it was as the acronym implies: “unified government.” Political expediency led to partial implementation in 1967, and only recently has more progress been made. Five townships merged their fire departments with the Indianapolis Fire Department. The Sheriff’s Department merged most of its force to create the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
While integration of public safety services and property tax assessment has generated operational efficiencies and financial savings, the greatest financial gains would come from consolidating the county’s 11 school districts.
When then-Mayor Richard Lugar advocated merging Marion County’s school districts in 1966, the outlying township schools featured sparkling new facilities and high test scores. In recent years, township schools have begun to face the same socioeconomic problems as IPS. A recent Brookings Institute report showed that, for the first time, over 50 percent of metropolitan poverty can be found in the suburbs.
Marion County has 11 superintendents, more than 11 assistant or associate superintendents, and 57 school board members.
Since 1967, IPS has seen a constant decline in funding, which is the result of population migration and economic development programs that subsidized private enterprise at the expense of the roads and education businesses rely upon to compete.
Further, IPS is not the only district facing academic challenges. Only two of Marion County’s 11 school districts have eighth-grade ISTEP passage rates higher than 70 percent.
The community can learn from these experiences. Township schools need expertise on how to adapt to lower enrollment and state support that does not match funding needs. IPS needs to learn from township schools, where the ultimate goal is not graduation but attending top universities.
A Marion County school system would offer all students access to North Central’s natatorium, Ben Davis’ vocational programs and IPS’ award-winning Center for Inquiry schools. Magnet schools could be more robust and diverse and better-funded. A single school district provides greater scale, which drives stronger leadership, higher academic standards, greater financial resources and increased innovation.
However, county-wide educational reform should be efficient with centralized administration and funding. We need one system with one superintendent reporting to one school board that is accountable to the people of Marion County.
One county-wide school district would drive excellence with the recruitment of top-notch teachers and compensation to match. Every reform proposal in the world recognizes that teacher quality generates results. We should pay for the best teachers and even consider “golden hellos” for those experts in areas of acute shortage such as the sciences and languages.
Schools within the district must possess a degree of autonomy with individual schools able to adapt to the student population and needs of the community it serves. The best teachers will demand an ability to shape a successful learning environment. In addition, transparency must be key, with high standards and regular reports on achievement.
Education is the most important investment our government makes. A strong public school system would help us create and sustain entrepreneurs and excel at the most important metric of a society—creating active, engaged citizens.•
Williams is an Indianapolis-based entrepreneur and businessman, who is active in many community organizations.