The Autonomy a School Needs for Success

In transforming its public-education structure and bureaucracy, Indianapolis is showing that there is more than one route to excellence.
September 19, 2017
(MCT/Seattle Times/Mike Siegel)
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

One of the most important events in the education reform movement in the last 25 years occurred last month in Indianapolis when a high school that had thrived as a charter institution gave up its autonomy from the school district. It's a lesson in how excellence in education is defined by what occurs inside a school, not by its designation as a charter, a traditional public school or something else. And it shows how high standards and de-bureaucratization drive excellence.

Let me set the stage for this man-bites-dog story. There were more than 100,000 students in the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) when I graduated from one of its high schools many decades ago. When I became the city's Republican mayor in the 1990s, the number had dropped into the 40,000s. Worried about the future of our city, I approached the teacher's union local president and made a proposal: I would wait to try to bring in new for-profit and nonprofit charter schools if he agreed to let his teachers charter their own schools, as several of them had proposed.

He refused, and I began an eight-year battle for reforms. I advocated for changes in state law to allow charters. With bureaucrats refusing to give teachers the authority they deserved, I proposed a combination of decentralization and school autonomy -- what was then called school-based decision-making. Ultimately, however, the bureaucracy and obstructionist teacher union contracts stalled our chance at systemic change. Parents continued to take their children out of the city.

In light of this, I couldn't help but marvel at the announcement last month that a nationally ranked public charter school was joining IPS as an "innovation network school," a new category that guarantees school leaders significant autonomy in both operations and academics. What had changed in a district that had once rejected any kind of school autonomy? And why has Herron High School chosen to join a district that had previously opposed charter schools?

The answers to these questions started with my Democratic successor, Bart Peterson, who convinced voters and policymakers that autonomous schools could deliver high-quality education. State legislation made his the first mayor's office in the country with the authority to issue charters outside of the purview of the traditional school bureaucracy. Through his vision of autonomous schools held to the highest performance standards, he built a thriving charter sector in Indianapolis, that, according to multiple Stanford University studies, outperforms its IPS peers. It was Peterson who in 2006 opened Herron High, which spent its first 11 years operating solely under the oversight of the mayor's charter office, the Office of Education Innovation.

 

Proof of concept alone, however, wasn't enough to overcome the same forces that had impeded change during my tenure as mayor. Large public institutions such as traditional school districts, after all, typically aren't structured to quickly take advantage of a good new idea.

The same might have been true for Indianapolis had it not been for the Mind Trust, an education nonprofit started by Peterson's first charter-schools director, David Harris. In 2011, the Mind Trust released a 150-page report that proposed a dramatic plan for transforming the Indianapolis public school district. One of the ideas in the report that caught on, likely because of Peterson's successful charter schools, was the idea of creating truly autonomous district schools. The debate about the plan helped shape the school-board election the following year, which led to the election of reform-minded board members and the subsequent hiring of a bold superintendent, Lewis D. Ferebee.

With integral support from Ferebee and from Peterson's successor, Republican Greg Ballard, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation giving public school districts the option of creating innovation network schools governed by nonprofit boards while subject to certain standards controlling hiring, instruction and finances.

That was three years ago, and since then IPS, the Mind Trust and the current mayor, Democrat Joe Hogsett, have formed a partnership and routinized the process for continued innovation. Herron High School's decision to join the ranks of IPS brings the total of innovation network schools to 16 as of this fall.

The Mind Trust's Brandon Brown thinks that the new process was essential to Herron's decision to join IPS. "Herron realized that being part of a large public school district would give them access to more resources than they would have as a stand-alone charter network," Brown says, "but I don't think Herron would ever have considered it if IPS hadn't already demonstrated that it was a good steward of school autonomy.".

Education reformers around the country -- and their opponents -- can learn much from what is happening in Indianapolis. The odds are good that more young adults will choose to stay in the city and educate their children in the city's transformed public schools because of a system that values the excellence that comes from autonomy and high standards regardless of whether the school is a charter or not.

NOTE: This column has been revised to correct the total number of innovation network schools and remove an incorrect reference to Herron High School having surrendered its charter.