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Education experiments radiate out of capital

John Harris Loflin’s agenda is pretty simple. He’s not asking to take over any schools. He doesn’t want to replace entire teaching staffs. He’s not even looking for a contract to offer virtual courses.

Loflin, an Indianapolis resident, just wants to have a debate about public education in the Circle City.

If that seems like an issue that should concern only Indianapolis residents, consider this: Those of us who observe politics from elsewhere in the state understand that when people want to fix something in Indianapolis, all Hoosiers become subject to their solutions.

Just look at the so-called property tax crisis: Marion County homeowners who had been enjoying absurdly low tax rates for years protested when they were asked to pay their fair share. The “fix” ultimately resulted in amending the Indiana Constitution, with cities and towns far from Indy now struggling with the effects of property tax caps.

The latest fix comes from school reformers with a plan to reorganize Indianapolis Public Schools. It originated with a non-profit group called the Mind Trust, but the opportunity to use an urban school district as a petri dish has drawn Teach for America, Stand for Children and other groups looking for a high-profile stage for their initiatives.

History suggests they won’t stop at Indianapolis – they’ll soon be eyeing all Indiana schools, where school-choice proponents already have realized unfettered success in transferring tax dollars from public to private hands. Indeed, they’ve already pleaded their case with legislators on the Indiana Select Commission for Education.

“They are here because there’s no resistance,” Loflin said. “They want to be a power.”

He is most concerned because the students and families affected immediately are the poor and minority residents in Indianapolis. A proponent of the democratic education movement (not to be confused with Democrats for Education Reform, a well-funded coalition of mostly white entrepreneurs and financiers), he wants to engage IPS parents and students in the operation of their schools.

But the plan well on its way to implementation serves to marginalize their participation. It would transfer authority over IPS from an elected school board to a board appointed by the mayor and city-county council. Under Indy’s UniGov system of government, such a plan would give voters in Pike, Warren, Washington and other Marion County school districts a voice in IPS operations, further diluting the political strength of poor and minority residents within the IPS boundaries.

You don’t have to be a proponent of democratic education principles to find that fact unsettling. Imagine the outrage if IPS voters sought a voice in the operation of Washington Township schools.

The Mind Trust, at the center of the IPS plan, was founded by David Harris, the first director of Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter schools office. He earned $199,600 in 2010, according to the organization’s federal non-profit disclosure form. His supporters now include Republican Mayor Greg Ballard, the Walton Family Foundation and more.

At state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s direction, Indiana taxpayers paid the Mind Trust $681,000 to create a report outlining a plan for schools targeted for state takeover, referencing the work on the organization’s “Creating Opportunity Schools” report, its blueprint for IPS reorganization.

A series of public meetings currently under way is ginning up support for the Mind Trust plan, according to Loflin. At the meetings, parents are asked rhetorical questions such as, “Do you want good teachers?”

“That’s like asking someone whose house is on fire, ‘Do you want the fire department to put the fire out?’ ” Loflin said.

His criticism of the Mind Trust plan is not based on blind support for IPS. He believes the urban school district, among other things, is too top-heavy with administrators. Loflin simply believes parents should have more of a say in the operation of their schools, as with a local school council model.

He’s not the only critic of the Mind Trust plan. John Houser of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education at IUPUI dissected the plan in a detailed report, countering claims it makes of improvements in New Orleans and New York City.

Houser challenges key aspects of the plan: Mayoral control, alternative teacher certification, expanded charter school options and the role of education management organizations.

“Our review of the research suggests that market-based education reforms such as those proposed by the Mind Trust run the risk of further disenfranchising groups and individuals that are already underprivileged, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, communities of color and those from families with low educational attainment,” he concludes.

Houser’s report raises serious questions about a plan in Indianapolis that is receiving too little scrutiny from those in authority, perhaps because many of those individuals have created attractive careers out of “fixing” schools for poor students. But rather than dismiss it as an Indianapolis issue, Hoosiers outside the IPS district better be aware that the “solution” already is aimed at their local schools.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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