Voters embrace education reform locally, but not in state race

Change within the Indianapolis Public Schools board is coming faster than expected even for The Mind Trust, the locally based education reform group pushing for a sweeping transformation of the district.

Tuesday’s election saw three reform-minded IPS board candidates—Gayle Cosby, Caitlin Hannon and Sam Odle—win their races by sizeable margins. Another candidate, reform-minded incumbent Diane Arnold, ran unopposed.

Combine the four with like-minded board members Samantha Adair-White and Annie Roof, who won in 2010, and The Mind Trust could have allies in six of the seven seats.

Michael Brown strongly supports Superintendent Eugene White, who opposes The Mind Trust’s more radical plan for change.

“If you had asked me a year ago when we released our plan, I would have been completely surprised,” Mind Trust CEO David Harris said Wednesday morning. “A lot of times, you have shifts that balance things out. Now, you have six votes for a reform agenda. It brings a real opportunity to bring about significant change.”

The Mind Trust plan released in December details the sweeping changes the organization views as necessary to reverse decades of decline in the district. The plan recommends gutting IPS’ central office and freeing up $188 million a year to provide universal preschool, to pay key teachers more than $100,000 a year and to transform the district into a network of autonomous “opportunity” schools.

And to make it happen, The Mind Trust says the state Legislature should yank control of the district from the IPS school board and hand it to the Indianapolis mayor.

Mayor Greg Ballard has been cool to the idea of taking responsibility for IPS, arguing that it is incongruous for the mayor of the entire city to control just one of its numerous school districts.

Even so, business interests say the election results prove that a majority of Indianapolis residents agree that the school district can no longer continue to replicate “the failures of the past.”

“I commend the citizens of Indianapolis for casting their vote in favor of a better Indianapolis and electing true change agents who will work to provide the tools necessary for student achievement across the board,” Indy Chamber CEO Scott Miller said in a prepared statement.

In one of the more glaring examples of that change, Cosby, a Lawrence Township teacher, routed incumbent Elizabeth Gore in District 2, winning 75 percent of the vote.

Hannon, a former IPS teacher who now works at the not-for-profit Teach Plus, beat challengers Jim Nixon and Larry W. Whiteman in District 1, capturing 67 percent.

And Odle, a former executive of IU Health, defeated Larry Vaughn for the at-large seat by receiving 63 percent.

Hannon raised more than $62,000, amassing the largest war chest in the race, which groups like The Mind Trust and Indiana Democrats for Education Reform saw as pivotal to improving the management and performance of IPS.

Harris at The Mind Trust said the group has worked with IPS in the past, but the election results represent an opportunity for real change to occur for the betterment of the district.

“It was as seismic shift,” he said, “and I think it sends an unmistakably clear message that voters in the district want significant change in how it’s operated.”

Meanwhile, at the state level, Hoosiers reacted differently to the reform movement, rejecting the changes that Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett championed.

School librarian Glenda Ritz from Indianapolis denied the Republican a second term as voters spurned his sweeping education overhaul.

The Democrat's win was seen as a victory for Indiana teachers who felt Bennett blamed them for school failures. Many educators opposed changes under Bennett that include expanding charter school access, limiting teachers' collective bargaining powers and basing teacher pay raises on annual evaluations.

Bennett also pushed for the state's private-school voucher program and oversaw the first state takeover of troubled public schools.

In his concession speech, Bennett said he had no regrets.

“Four years ago, we came here and we promised to do big things for Indiana families and their children,” he said. “We were going to put children first, without any consideration of whether we were going to be re-elected or not."

He ended by saying, “I beg this state to continue" reforming education.

With the election of Republican Mike Pence as governor, and with Republicans maintaining control of both Houses in the Indiana General Assembly, Ritz may have a tough time undoing Bennett’s reform measures.

“She’s clearly expressed opposition to some things expressed in state law,” said Derek Redelman, vice president of education and workforce development at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “So she’s not going to be able to just walk in and remove those things as her campaign kind of suggested.”

Further, as state schools superintendent, Ritz will chair the State Board of Education, whose 10 members, one from each of Indiana’s nine congressional districts and an at-large member, were appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels and ultimately will be appointed by Pence.

“The consensus and momentum for reform is rock solid,” Daniels said at a press conference with Pence on Wednesday morning. “Not one of those laws is going to change.”

Teachers’ unions fiercely opposed Bennett. Even though Ritz was dramatically outspent by Bennett, Indiana’s 60,000 educators waged a ferocious campaign on social networking sites and through word of mouth.

“Frankly, I don’t think anybody saw that coming until the last few days,” Redelman said. “It was truly a grassroots effort.”

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