Commentary and Opinion

MAURER: Public education, another lost source of civic pride

June 22, 2013

Mickey Maurer CommentaryBlessed with the electrifying Indianapolis 500-mile race last month and the resurgence of the Indiana Pacers, our community is bursting with civic pride. I too am proud of the achievements of our athletes, but professional sports is not high on my list of civic pride motivators. Public safety tops the list, as I explained in my last column. Over the next few weeks, this column will feature additional civic pride motivators.

No. 2 on my list is public education. Is there anything here we can be proud of? Our children should be competitive with the rest of the world but are not and have not been for many years. Use any measurement you want. Graduation rates? Less than two-thirds of Indianapolis Public Schools students graduated in 2012. How about science and math acumen? Less than one-half of students in IPS passed both the math and English portions of the state standardized tests. Like “The Music Man” con artist Harold Hill said, “We got problems.”

IPS has been under siege for decades and has deserved that scrutiny. We have failed under a succession of superintendents—Gilbert, Zendejas, Pritchett and White—all hailed as rescuers from this monstrous enigma. I am a big fan of the recently departed Eugene White, who excelled at every posting while advancing to the IPS job. If White couldn’t do it, the problem is not solvable in its present iteration.

Fingers have not just pointed at superintendents. Other culprits have been identified: deficient home environments; teachers who are underpaid, disinterested and irresponsible; a befuddled and hostile school board; obsolete facilities; and our children, who are under-supported, undernourished and under-appreciated. All of these are reminiscent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse.

Indy has not given up. A newly constituted and reenergized school board has an opportunity to earn a gold star under the leadership of Sam Odle, a bright and able administrator with abundant energy and enthusiasm who recently retired from IU Health. The general record of charter schools and educational centers of excellence within the system are also encouraging.

Give an apple to David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, an organization launched in 2006 under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. The Mind Trust empowers talented people with innovative ideas for improving education to drive change in our city’s public schools.

It runs two incubators designed to help launch new schools and education-reform organizations, and The Mind Trust has recruited established national groups like Teach for America and College Summit to the city. The organization also released a plan for improving IPS that has become a national model for district transformation.

But even with Odle and Harris, we are only tinkering around the edges of this dilemma. The solution lies at the very beginning—literally. If you don’t catch a struggling kid by the third grade, you are bound to lose him. To prevent that, education must begin at the preschool level.

Lack of third-grade reading skills correlates with grade retention, drop-out, criminal behavior and poverty, all resulting in greater expense to the community than a sound program of subsidized preschool education. The critical stage in a child’s education is ages 3-5. If we draw the battle lines at age 3 and provide a quality preschool education for all, we can win this war.

Anecdotal evidence of this assessment can be found in a visit to St. Mary’s Child Center at 901 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. Since 1961, the facility has been a leader in providing a full range of services for preschool children who are at risk for learning and emotional problems or have developmental delays.

Am I bursting with civic pride? Yes, of course. And do I care about our professional sports? I’m a loyal fan. Professional sports support economic development and enrich our culture—important elements of civic pride, but would I rather brag about having the best public education system in America? Think about it.•

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Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.

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