IPS issues rebuttal to Mind Trust's reform plan

April 16, 2012

Indianapolis Public Schools wants to streamline its administrative staff, create more choices for parents, direct more resources to its most challenged schools and give more autonomy to its highest performing schools.

The ideas were presented Monday night by IPS Superintendent Eugene White in an hour-long presentation that was primarily a defense of IPS' recent record and growth. White cast the new ideas as an outgrowth of the district's current trajectory and said there was no need to embrace a more radical plan for change released in December by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group.

"The bottom line is simply this: We are doing better," said White, before a crowd of more than 300 people in an auditorium at the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. He touted IPS' graduation rate, which has improved over the past five years from 46 percent to 65 percent. "We have to start celebrating the positive and stop accentuating the negative," White added.

The details of White's plan for continuing to improve the district were tucked into a 34-page "progress report" issued Monday night, titled, "Growing A+ Schools." Most significantly, the IPS plan makes no proposal about changing the structure of the district’s 7-member board or the way its members are selected.

The Mind Trust has called for the board to be appointed by the Indianapolis mayor and the City-County Council—replacing popular elections.

In February, White suggested to IPS’ school board members that the district expand its board from seven to nine, making five of the members popularly elected and four appointed—one each by the mayor, City-County Council, Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Eli Lilly and Co.

But White and the IPS board ditched the idea after conversations with community members indicated they want to preserve the right to elect their own school board members. Also, White added in an interview after the meeting, "they felt like our board had nothing to apologize for."

But David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, disagreed.

"IPS cites a list of the board’s activities as a sign of its success, but that list includes nothing about improved academic results for students,” noted Harris in a prepared statement about the IPS plan. Noting that fewer than half of IPS students pass the state standardized ISTEP tests in math and English, Harris added, "IPS' results demonstrate why bold change is needed."

White, who also took questions for an hour after his presentation, asserted that IPS results are lower in large part because 80 percent of its students live in poverty, 20 percent are special education students and 14 percent speak English as a second language. Given those challenges, the district's recent improvement in graduation and test scores is evidence, he argued, that IPS is on the right track.

He spend a significant amount of time touting IPS' record of launching "innovative" magnet schools and programs. That will continue, White said, with 24 new schools or programs launching in the next three years.

White’s plan would also form IPS’ 211-person administrative staff into five divisions, and likely cut cut an unspecified number of positions in an effort to shave off $40 million in expenses this year. IPS has already cut $92 million from its budget the past four years.

Much of the proposal released Monday rebuts The Mind Trust’s analysis of IPS’ $553 million annual budget, particularly its spending on administrative functions. The Mind Trust proposed reducing IPS’ administrative staff to 65 and its budget to just $10 million—down from $53 million now.

Under the Mind Trust plan, Many administrative jobs and duties would be assigned to individual schools, who would gradually be given responsibility for whether those jobs and spending remained, or were directed to other purposes.

IPS administrators have sharply disputed The Mind Trust’s analysis of its budget, and White’s plan takes more time to buttress those previous arguments.

The Mind Trust plan also called for creating “Opportunity Schools,” which would earn autonomy from district control if they posted outstanding academic results. The Mind Trust plan calls for filling the district with only such schools, then allowing all students to choose whatever school they want to attend, regardless of where they live.

White’s plan gives a nod to this idea, by calling for IPS’ highest-performing schools to become semi-autonomous. Only six of IPS’ more than 60 schools post student test scores above the state average.

Beginning in July and August, the IPS administrators will train the leaders of individual schools--whose students are already performing well--how to handle budgeting, purchasing and hiring decisions on their own. After a two-year probationary period, those schools would be allowed complete autonomy for those decisions.

However, the IPS central office would retain control over the schools' curriculum, White said, because IPS students are frequently moving from one school to another multiple times during a school year.

White hopes that within five years half of IPS' schools have this semi-autonomous status, although he expressed open doubt that busy principals and teachers would want to take on the extra duties.

The semi-autonomous schools could reduce the need for staff at the central office, and if they do, IPS plans to direct more resources to its schools with the biggest problems, hopefully helping them to improve. Some schools, however, would continue to be managed the same way they are now.

"If it works and we can get more and more to do it, then we'll cut people in the central office," White said. "But we'll see."



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