Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the roots of their success and the latest issues they're addressing.
While attending Broad Ripple High School in the mid-1980s, David Harris was more captivated by a possible career in government or politics than seeking to improve the prospects and classroom experiences of his fellow students. Decades later, he finds himself at the center of the debate over how to revamp the Indianapolis Public Schools system.
“In high school, I did not have any sense that I would get involved in the non-profit world, and certainly didn’t have any sense that I would focus on education reform,” said Harris, who in 2006 founded Indianapolis-based The Mind Trust.
In December 2011, the Trust released a 155-page proposal detailing strategies to overhaul IPS, partially funded by the Indiana Department of Education. Titled “Creating Opportunity Schools,” the report prescribed a tectonic shift in the system, moving control of key decisions and most resources from its central office to individual schools.
It also suggested investing millions more dollars in attracting and keeping talented educators, as well as offering pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in the IPS district. Perhaps its most controversial proposal called for switching from a publicly elected school board to a body appointed by the mayor and City-County Council, also known as “mayoral control.”
“We can’t say that the district has begun to implement [the recommendations], and that’s obviously the ultimate goal," Harris said. "But I think it has generated an enormous amount of conversation and discussion.”
That discussion likely contributed to a sea change in the composition of the seven-member IPS board after elections in November. Three newcomers who had voiced at least some support for changes to the system won seats, tilting the balance of power toward reformers. In the video above, Harris takes stock of “Creating Opportunity Schools” and its influence over the last year.
Harris, 42, made the transition from a legal career to politics to school reform with the influence of former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, whom Harris counts as a significant mentor. While working as an attorney at the law firm Baker & Daniels LLP (now Faegre Baker Daniels LLP) in the late 1990s, Harris agreed to help Peterson shape his stances on issues as he prepared for a mayoral run.
After Peterson won, Harris went to work in the mayor’s office. He was Peterson's point man when the mayor urged the Indiana Legislature to make Indianapolis the first U.S. city where the mayor could authorize charter schools. The success of that effort led Peterson to appoint Harris as the city’s first charter school director.
“The very first issue area that Bart asked me to look into when he was thinking about running for mayor was charter schools, so I put together a pretty comprehensive paper on that. And I just became very interested in and passionate about the opportunities they presented for kids and our overall community,” Harris said.
The mayor’s charter initiative received some scrutiny at the time for its leaders’ apparent lack of experience in education. “It was one of those things that Bart at the time said in some respects was an advantage, because you didn’t come with a lot of pre-set notions of how things could be,” Harris said.
Harris founded The Mind Trust in 2006 with the goal of attracting to Indianapolis a critical mass of people and organizations dedicated to innovations in K-12 education. It has established a fellowship program in which chosen candidates are given a $90,000 annual salary and health benefits for two years while they create initiatives to address needs. The resulting startups have tackled issues such as the achievement gap among foster children, and mobilizing faith leaders and churchgoers to advocate for education reform.
The Trust has brought education-focused organizations to the city, including Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and College Summit, which helps low-income students prepare for college. It also has begun awarding million-dollar grants to entice charter-school operators to start networks in Indianapolis.
Six years into its mission, the Trust now counts 11 employees. However, only one—its vice president of education initiatives—has any significant classroom teaching experience. In the video below, Harris counters the perception that those with hands-on teaching chops are best suited to guide education reform.
“The same criticism was made when we launched the charter school office in the mayor’s office—that these people don’t come from a traditional education background,” he said. “We ended up not only creating a national model for how to be a charter school authorizer, but in 2006 we won kind of the gold-standard in government awards, which is the Harvard Innovations in American Government Award.
“The reality is that the people who have really brought about the most significant change and the most significant successes are people who didn’t necessarily come out of traditional educational backgrounds,” he said.
In the video at bottom, Harris touches on the debate about standardized testing and its role in evaluating both students and teachers. And he lauds Peterson as a role model during his early years in government.