Jim Merritt: IPS must reinvent itself to serve students, taxpayers

Keywords Editorials / Viewpoint
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In 2014, when I served Senate District 31, Indianapolis Public Schools came to the Indiana General Assembly asking for legislative flexibility to create a decentralized system of schools called Innovation Network Schools that promised to increase student achievement in the state’s largest school district.

Former IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee joined then-Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard to jointly advocate for the law. The premise was simple: Great school leaders and educators need autonomy to best serve their communities, free from central-office bureaucracy. In exchange, innovation network schools would be held accountable for producing superior academic results. I was proud to vote for this legislation.

For several years after the law’s passage, IPS grew its innovation network by partnering with high-quality charter school operators. The results were impressive: Decades of enrollment decline reversed, overall academic results began to improve, and the district was viewed as a model.

But while IPS has used this law to create exciting partnerships, the progress has stalled, in large part because the district has failed to fully reinvent itself—costing both students and taxpayers of Indianapolis dearly. Since 2014, IPS has dramatically decreased the number of schools it directly manages while radically increasing the amount of money it receives from taxpayers through both capital and operating referendums.

IPS has attempted to pass four local tax increases in the past five years alone. As originally proposed, the district told Indianapolis taxpayers it needed a total of more than $1.75 billion in additional funding across those four proposed referendums.

Thankfully, community leaders stepped in to reduce the amount of the 2018 referendums and to encourage the district to hold off on another operating referendum in 2023. Even so, IPS has added three new referendums—two capital and one operating—during this time.

While IPS continues to serve fewer students in its direct-managed schools, the district’s property tax receipts have almost doubled over the past five years due to increasing tax rates and property values. Unbelievably, IPS continues to present information at public board meetings indicating that it will still run out of money in just a few years unless it is able to pass another referendum.

This leads to a simple question: Where is the money going? It certainly isn’t being used to improve academic performance.

On the 2023 ILEARN exam, charter schools within IPS boundaries achieved an overall proficiency rate of 17.2% compared to 12.4% for IPS direct-managed schools. Black students in charters achieved a 15% proficiency rate, compared to 5.4% for IPS students. Hispanic students in charters achieved a 15% proficiency rate, compared to 7.8% in IPS.

Another way to measure student performance is by looking at college-readiness rates. Overall, 21% of charter students within IPS boundaries achieved college-readiness benchmarks compared to 4.2% in IPS.

Charter schools in Indianapolis produce these results while receiving almost $8,000 less per pupil than do their IPS counterparts. Today, the majority of public-school students within IPS boundaries attend charter or innovation network schools. It is clear all public schools within IPS should be innovation or charter schools.

Our state leaders have shown courage time and again by intervening when districts fail their students. There are success stories. An innovative partnership between Ball State University and Muncie Community Schools is leading to positive changes. GEO Foundation has experienced remarkable success empowering students with its 21st Century Charter Schools in Gary.

It’s long past time for IPS to completely reinvent itself by reigniting the growth of innovation network schools, trimming its bureaucracy and respecting taxpayers by stewarding its resources more responsibly. If IPS is unwilling to do what is necessary, then I challenge the General Assembly and community leaders to intervene in IPS and provide students the opportunities they deserve.•

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Merritt is a former Republican state senator from Indianapolis.

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