Editorial: IPS school board races need jolt of meaningful competition

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

Few institutions in a community are more important than the public school system.

Even when students have a robust selection of charter schools and private schools (and even when the state helps fund students’ tuition to private schools), a local school district serves as the backbone of learning in a community.

Indianapolis Public Schools educates about 23,000 students—and more than 75% of them are Black, Hispanic or biracial. About one in five IPS students is an English learner, meaning the student speaks another language at home. Nearly one in five has disabilities. And two-thirds of IPS students are economically disadvantaged.

That’s why it’s important that IPS and Marion County’s township school districts, who serve similar populations, offer students the best education possible. Students from poor families will have almost no chance of moving up economically if they do not begin with a good education.

And so it is unsettling that interest in serving on the IPS board has fallen to its lowest level in at least a decade, according to a story written by reporters at Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI.

Only four candidates are running for three open sets. Only one race—to represent District 3—is contested.

Reporters at Chalkbeat and WFYI found several reasons for the seeming lack of interest, including frustration about polarizing politics and the intimidating task of raising enough campaign cash to be competitive. They report that political action committees—many from out of state—have been increasingly involved in the races.

One critic quoted in the story said the PACs have “basically ended local democracy. The amount of money they have is so huge.”

And it’s no surprise people are less interested in running, given that school politics nationally—think the pandemic, curriculum questions and gender-related policies—are so contentious.

All of this matters because IPS is struggling. Its district grade from the state is a D. Too few students pass standardized tests and go to college. IPS is losing students to charter schools and private schools. And while that might be positive for an individual student who is moving (at least in some cases) to a better school, the health of IPS remains important to the community.

To help combat some of the problems, IPS is launching a plan it calls Rebuilding Stronger. It includes closing seven schools and reopening others, in part to create stand-alone middle schools. One goal is to save money; another is to better serve students across the district.

But the creation and implementation of these plans rely on strong, involved board members—and the plans work only if those board members are representing the interests and the will of the students and families in the district they represent. That requires some competition.

We’re not sure whom to call on to investigate why interest in IPS board service has waned. Kudos to the work done by Chalkbeat and WFYI in exploring the issue. It would certainly behoove the IPS board itself to take a look, but it might be hard for those board members to be objective. Still, it’s worth the effort, and we hope IPS will consider it.•

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