The Bold & the Beautiful: The Mind Trust Plan for Indianapolis

Terry Ryan said it well, praising The Mind Trust’s Indianapolis school reform plan, Creating Opportunity Schools, as a “bold and dramatic transformation of public education akin to what has taken place in New Orleans and New York City.”  And it’s true that “the most controversial part of the reform plan,” as Terry writes,  “calls for neutering the role of the current IPS [Indianapolis Public Schools] school board, while turning governance over to a new five member board appointed jointly by the mayor and the City-County Council.”

This is indeed a bold consolidation of power.  But the plan also calls for turning Indianapolis into a district of total choice, in which all schools would compete for students — a bold diffusion of power.  By combining mayoral authority and parental choice, as Paul Peterson suggests in his masterful 2010 book Saving Schools, The Mind Trust proposal would create “a marriage made in heaven”:

Theoretically, the excellence movement’s two central thrusts — accountability and parental choice — are complementary strategies designed to enhance school quality: information supplied by an accountability system can be made available to parents, who can then make intelligent choices among schools.

But Peterson warns that “when choice and accountability are pursued simultaneously, they operate on a collision course.” This tension is part of the reform dynamic, overcome, Peterson suggests, by “reconstruct[ing] it from the bottom up.”

This is essentially what the 155-page Mind Trust plan proposes. And having done some editing work on David Harris and Bart Peterson’s forthcoming book, Educating a City, I understand the need for wholesale reconstruction.  What David Harris, Mind Trust CEO, and Bart Peterson (no relation to Paul that I know of), former mayor, accomplished in Indianapolis while Peterson was Indy mayor (from 2000 to 2008) was something close to miraculous — they helped get the state to pass a charter school law and then created a stable of 16 charters.

Education Next called Bart Peterson “the Peyton Manning of charter schools.” (This was clearly before the Colts faded and Manning went on the active disabled list.) But Bart Peterson and David Harris’ school reform successes — including The Mind Trust, which was started in 2006 — were all the more remarkable because of the intransigence of the powerful local education establishment. The public school district, while refusing to improve, fought Peterson and Harris every step of the improvement way.

The current IPS Superintendent, Eugene White, carries on that tradition.  ”We are always looking for an easy fix to a complicated problem,” White told the Indianapolis Star after the new Mind Trust plan was unveiled over the weekend.  “They seem to think the report is very provocative. I don’t think it’s provocative at all. We’re doing most of the things in the report.”

This is what I call the possum defense; what perennially failing districts like IPS do when attacked: play dead and hope the reform enemy will go away. It has worked well so far — though not for kids.  As The Mind Trust report points out,

Only 45% of IPS students meet state standards on the math and English language arts portions of ISTEP+ [Indiana’s statewide tests]. The achievement gap between IPS and the state in English language arts is large in 3rd grade — 20 percentage points — and even larger in 8th — 29 percentage points. Only 58% of students graduate on time. Six of the seven most chronically failing schools in the state are in IPS.

In fact, “Indianapolis Public Schools exemplifies the problems of the nation’s worst public school systems,” RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation wrote last year:

This Midwestern district suffers all the faults of urban districts that aren’t involved in any reform effort, from bureaucratic incompetence to political intransigence to high levels of teacher absenteeism…. The district remains home to one of the nation’s most-comprehensive concentrations of dropout factories, with all but one of its high schools (a specialized high school) graduating fewer than 60 percent of its students. The graduation rates for black and white males (based on 2006 data) are tied with Detroit’s abysmal district for the worst.

Indeed, the Mind Trust report is provocative precisely because it knows that the possum is still alive and will not move without some definitive prodding. Mayoral control is no silver bullet, but for what ails Indy, it’s time.

And this is why some of the initial responses to The Mind Trust proposal from state legislators, who must approve the mayoral control plan, offer some reason for hope.  House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the Star, “it is perhaps an idea whose time has come.” And Rep. Bill Crawford, an Indianapolis Democrat, says, “It’s not as bad and as objectionable as some people anticipate…. It creates an obligation on the part of the political leader of the county. (School performance) becomes a record of his success or failure.”  It is, as Paul Peterson suggests, accountability through choice.

And as Fordham inaugurates the new era of education governance rethinking, The Mind Trust initiative represents the kind of comprehensive systemic change that promises to remake public education; for the better, we hope.

Mayoral control is not new, but it has become a popular way for larger school districts to upend the political patronage mills that too many school boards fall prey to — and usher in a pot-pourri of reform initiatives.

“In theory,” writes Columbia University Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig, “mayors are better situated than school boards or superintendents to mobilize a broad constituency for educational investment and improvement and to find and develop positive spillovers between schools and the other work of other municipal agencies that host programs that can help families and youth.”

“It makes a difference,” Seymour Fliegel, a 30-year veteran of New York City’s school wars and a former deputy superintendent in East Harlem, told me while I was reporting my Education Next story on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s assumption of control of New York City’s schools, “that the same guy who can command the garbage trucks and police cruisers is talking about education.”

“Schools aren’t under my command,” Detroit Mayor Dave Bing told the Wall Street Journal in 2009, “they are run by a school board that is dominated by teachers unions. One of my goals is to have mayoral control of the school system.” (See Henig)

There are complexities, of course.  And As Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks warned in their recent paper for the Fordham/CAP conference,

Mayoral control and other popular remedies mistakenly focus on the faltering performance of school boards themselves and thereby fail to address the underlying dysfunction of an outdated Progressive approach to schooling.

But The Mind Trust initiative seems to get it, proposing a set of reforms – universal pre-K, shifting budget control to individual schools, giving all parents a choice, recruiting and paying great teachers—that anticipates the Hess and Meeks advice:

Transformative improvement must… begin by rethinking the district monopoly and take advantage of new providers and new technologies in systems organized around function, not geography.”

The Mind Trust’s proposal is indeed a must-read for any education policymaker—or anyone thinking of becoming one.

–Peter Meyer

This post also appears on Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College