Indianapolis Public Schools chief Eugene White disappointed on April 16 when he unveiled proposals that would merely futz around the edges of the troubled system rather than match or exceed the dramatic innovations put forth by The Mind Trust last year. This was White’s chance to show vision for improving IPS after being turned down for jobs outside the state and saying he would end his career in Indianapolis. Instead, he projected a defiant tilt toward the status quo.
White in effect said IPS is doing just fine, thank you. His plan would lightly trim administrative rosters, allow modest autonomy for top-performing schools, and create some new schools and programs for parents to choose from, but otherwise stay the course.
The Mind Trust calls for gutting the hulking administrative office and shifting $188 million in annual spending to individual school leaders, and to pay for such things as universal preschool and better salaries for teachers who would work in a network of autonomous schools. The school board would be appointed by the Indianapolis mayor and City-County Council, a notion White rejects.
The differences between the plans boil down to values: White is betting that top-down, bureaucratic, centralized control will result in better-educated children, while The Mind Trust believes in pushing decisions to the lowest level possible and giving teachers and administrators room to innovate.
Red tape versus flexibility; when was the last time overhead, regulation and sameness outperformed freedom and entrepreneurship? We can’t think of an example, either. If public education and its hidebound ways were held to the standards of the private sector, it would have gone out of business decades ago.
Citizens both inside and outside the district increasingly agree, and by playing it safe White might have inadvertently positioned himself to answer to new and impatient bosses.
As IBJ reporter J.K. Wall writes this week, reform-minded Democrats are pushing to elect more responsive IPS board members in November. If the reformers succeed, the recast board might push the 64-year-old White closer to The Mind Trust proposals.
White also shouldn’t forget that the Legislature has been receptive to education reform in recent years, and that redistricting likely will increase the number of Republicans in the 2013 General Assembly. They might approve reforms that would turn up the heat on him.
Moreover, White’s dallying might inadvertently draw even more funding to The Mind Trust. The not-for-profit is on the verge of closing a large fundraising campaign. Raising any amount of money is challenging in these times, but for a group to rake in a stunning $18 million seemingly at will says something about the frustration with public education.
White could have floated a bold proposal that would have accelerated the improvements in graduation rates he has overseen.
But, possibly looking over his shoulder at a board also mired in the status quo, he whiffed. That’s a shame not only for White, but also for the board and for the children he is charged to educate.•
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