How shifting political tides ended Indiana’s ambitious school takeover effort

When Indiana leaders took over five failing schools nearly a decade ago, the decision was an act of desperation. The campuses were languishing: Fights frequently broke out in the hallways and students spent class time filling out McDonald’s job applications.

But it was also ambitious, a sign that Indiana education officials would aggressively push districts to improve schools that had long failed to meet state expectations and would even seize control of campuses that didn’t improve test scores and graduation rates.

“Our children deserve better, and it’s time to do it,” Indiana’s then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said at a 2011 news conference to unveil his plan to take over the schools. “Our intent is to use everything we have in this state to restore these schools to what they should be for the children in these communities.”

Nine years and $33 million in extra federal funding later, however, the State Board of Education ended takeover with little fanfare last week — returning the remaining schools under state control to the local Indianapolis and Gary districts. By the time the board rendered that decision, the takeover had already begun to unravel amid practical hurdles of overseeing the schools and shifting political winds. The schools remain troubled, and there is little consensus on whether state takeover succeeded in substantially improving them.

At worst, the takeover brought instability to students and left people of color feeling disempowered. At best, it brought calm to schools that had been previously in disarray and created close-knit environments where some students thrived.

The board’s decision to end the takeover confirmed the waning enthusiasm in Indiana for state oversight of failing schools. But it also revealed how much Indianapolis Public Schools has transformed in recent years. Since the takeover, it has become a charter-friendly district that state leaders have enough faith in that they are willing to hand back control of three campuses: Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School, Emmerich Manual High School, and Thomas Carr Howe High School.

“States really do not want to be managing schools or school districts,” said Domingo Morel, a professor at Rutgers University who studies school takeover. What they want, rather, are local leaders they agree with, he said, adding: “What I think is happening in Indiana is the state has realized that they are at a place now where the people who will be governing schools are aligned with what the state wants.”

There were also pragmatic pressures to return the schools to local control. For months, the State Board of Education had intended for the three schools in Indianapolis to be permanently transferred to Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based charter operator that currently runs the schools through a contract with the state. But when the network’s charter applications were rejected, the board decided to return the schools to local control. It mirrored the state decision to return another campus, Arlington High School, to Indianapolis Public Schools five years earlier, after the charter manager pulled out over financial concerns.

The board last week also voted to return Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy to the Gary school district. The historic building is in such bad condition students were moved into garages at the career center, and state board members argued it should be a local decision whether to close the school. The ultimate choice, however, will still fall to state officials because the entire Gary district is under a state-appointed emergency manager. Indiana took over Gary and another financially troubled district, Muncie, in 2017.

By the end of this school year, three of the five schools that the state took over eight years ago will likely be closed: Arlington, which closed in 2018, Roosevelt, and Howe.

When the takeover began, Bennett was willing to take unpopular steps to push for his vision of school improvement. And he had the backing of fellow Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who placed contentious education policies at the center of his agenda.

But in the wake of the takeover, Bennett lost his reelection bid, and opposition has grown, even among once-like-minded Republicans, to the policies he championed, such as enforcing the state’s school accountability system and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

It appears there is now “essentially fatigue” at the state level, said Dale Chu, who oversaw the takeover schools for the Indiana Department of Education during Bennett’s administration.

“If the state is not interested, doesn’t have the wherewithal, [or] doesn’t have the capacity,” said Chu, who is now an education consultant, “and you also have a situation where the district is interested in doing something — then maybe it is best for the kids to do that.”

***

The state takeover helped catalyze the transformation of Indianapolis Public Schools, where a newly elected school board replaced the superintendent and hired Lewis Ferebee in 2013. His administration began an aggressive restart strategy that mirrors the state approach by handing management to outside charter operators, who typically hire new teachers and school leaders.

When Ferebee left last year, the school board confirmed its commitment to innovation schools by choosing a former charter school principal and Ferebee’s deputy, Aleesia Johnson, to succeed him.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials declined to comment for this story.

Several factors led Indianapolis Public Schools to become a district that works closely with charter schools, said David Harris, who helped found The Mind Trust, which supports district and charter collaboration in Indianapolis, and The City Fund, a national organization with the same goal where he is now a partner. The most important were likely the new school board members and Ferebee, along with a report from The Mind Trust calling for massive changes to the district, he argued.

But state takeover helped “spark” the overhaul, Harris said. “It helped underscore for the community that the district wasn’t moving in the right direction and something dramatically different needed to happen.”

The district’s approach successfully staved off additional state takeovers. The State Board of Education has not voted to take over any schools since 2011, opting instead for less disruptive interventions. And the strategy underpins the district plan for two of the schools it won back: While Howe will close next school year, Indianapolis Public Schools plans to give daily management of Manual and Donnan to charter schools.

That would have been “unimaginable” under the administration that led Indianapolis Public Schools in 2011, Harris said.

“We now have … a former charter principal leading IPS and creating autonomous schools within the district in partnership with existing charter schools,” Harris said. “So to me the dramatic story, and I think it is dramatic, is how much change we’ve seen in IPS.”

***

While the takeover helped trigger enduring changes in the Indianapolis school system, whether or not the takeover schools are significantly better now is a point of contention. Although the state letter grades for the schools have improved, the accountability system has repeatedly shifted in recent years, and questionable graduation rates at some of the schools made even State Board of Education staff reluctant to rely on the grades.

Republican Rep. Bob Behning, who chairs the House Education Committee, said there’s currently little interest at the statehouse in taking over another school. If the state were to do it again, Behning said he would consider lengthening the term of the state’s control, to help ease concern about what would happen next.

“It seems to me that’s been a consistent problem with where we are today,” Behning said.

Indiana still has control of the Gary and Muncie districts. And those may not be the last schools to face state takeover. Experts say that while political interest in taking over schools is fading, the pressure on states to intervene remains, as they increasingly oversee school budgets and continue to place weight on test scores.

“States are still very much interested in the takeover option,” said Morel, of Rutgers University, who wrote a book about the impact of state takeovers of local school districts on communities of color.

Taking decision-making power away from locally elected school boards can be especially detrimental to black communities, where a school board is an important door to gaining political power and representation, Morel said.

Uncertainty about the future of a school can spur families and teachers seeking stability to leave.

In Indianapolis, takeover “failed” because of the turmoil it caused families, said Carole Craig, a community education advocate who followed the changes closely through her work with the NAACP. The takeover was “a political move to disrupt IPS,” Craig said, and it resulted in changes being imposed on children of color primarily by white people from the outside who didn’t know the communities.

“You end up with a lack of trust,” Craig said. “How do you expect those families to trust systems now to take care of their children?”

But supporters of the takeover say it’s important to understand how troubled the schools were before the intervention. They point to years of neglect, rock-bottom expectations for students, and safety concerns.

Marian University President Daniel Elsener, who sat on the state board at the time of the takeover, said he still stands by the decision but acknowledges its complications. For example, in 2012, after Indianapolis Public Schools fought the takeover by recruiting students to other schools, the new operators were left with large, under-enrolled campuses that were costly to run, he said.

“At a very minimum, the schools were safer and better run,” Elsener said of the campuses under state control. “Since we took over, were the children better served? Yes. Is it good enough? No.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.