Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Start over to fix Indianapolis schools

June 16, 2012

Change is hard. We get that. But sometimes, it’s necessary.

This is one of those times.

We’ll put it as simply—and bluntly—as possible: Indianapolis Public Schools is broken, and drastic changes are the only way to fix it. The status quo simply isn’t acceptable anymore.

Local education-reform group The Mind Trust is leading the charge for an IPS overhaul, calling for its elected school board to be replaced by a governing body appointed by the Indianapolis mayor and City-County Council.

As IBJ’s J.K. Wall reported last week, mayoral control of schools is nothing new. Cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., for example, have taken the bold step and saw students’ test scores rise—albeit modestly.

Still, critics of the idea abound. One of them, to no surprise, is IPS Superintendent Eugene White, a once-promising educator who has turned into an unabashed IPS apologist.

“I don’t know of one [example of mayoral control] that I could point to that would be more successful than what we’re currently doing in Indianapolis,” he told IBJ, predicting that the Legislature will balk at giving city leaders such powers.

If that’s true, we’re in trouble.

Although IPS has made some improvements—increasing its graduation rate from 46 percent to 65 percent over the past five years, for instance—a school district where fewer than half the students pass state-standardized tests isn’t getting the job done. White should be willing to do whatever it takes to fix the problem. Instead, he is cheering on mediocrity.

Sure, mayoral control of schools isn’t a panacea. It didn’t work in Detroit or Cleveland. And just changing the name at the top of an organizational chart won’t make much of a difference. But The Mind Trust’s scorched-earth approach isn’t about trading one bureaucracy for another. It is a way to overcome a natural aversion to much-needed change and welcome new ideas.

The group recommends decentralizing school operations and streamlining IPS’ bloated administrative staff, freeing $188 million a year that could be used to pay outstanding teachers and fund universal preschool. Why hasn’t that happened already? For the same reason corporate executives get performance bonuses even as rank-and-file workers lose their jobs. It’s good to be the boss.

White and other opponents of mayoral control say appointing a board would disenfranchise the public by denying them a vote. But it seems to us that having the buck stop on the desk of an elected mayor would actually increase accountability, given the historically low interest in—and turnout for—school board elections.

Politics complicates matters, to be sure. We can think of no other reason that Mayor Greg Ballard still has not declared a clear position on the idea more than a year after it became public. But this isn’t a topic we can afford to discuss much longer.

Something needs to change. Our city’s future depends on it.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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