Local | April 22, 2015

State budget threatens education progress

Improving educational outcomes for all Indianapolis students demands a key ingredient: talented people. This includes not only excellent teachers and principals, but also innovative social entrepreneurs who can launch quality schools and programs that address the needs of underserved kids.

Over the last decade, Indianapolis has made huge strides in attracting and retaining such talent. The Mind Trust runs three programs to equip leaders to launch world-class schools and initiatives that address key education challenges, and since 2008 these programs have drawn more than 3,800 applicants from 48 states and 36 countries.

These talented people – both national and homegrown – are making a significant impact in improving outcomes for students, most notably through Indianapolis’ charter school sector. Indianapolis’ charter schools have flourished because they’ve attracted innovators with the talent to launch and grow quality schools, as demonstrated most recently by a Stanford University study showing Indianapolis charter students gain an additional 47 days of learning in math and 55 days in reading compared to district peers.

But the budget being debated in the Indiana General Assembly threatens to hamper this progress. In an understandable effort to provide more support to fast-growing suburban districts, some lawmakers are proposing school funding-formula changes that would cut state dollars for many Indianapolis schools serving predominantly low-income kids, including public charter schools.

The city’s public charters would see a 3 percent cut of $181 per pupil, and while the state may provide additional grant dollars for which charters could apply, these dollars would not be guaranteed and could not be used for key functions such as paying teachers or purchasing materials. They also could not exceed $1,500 per pupil, merely helping offset an existing $4,000 per pupil funding gap between Indianapolis Public Schools and charters, which do not receive property tax dollars.

IPS, too, could see losses of up to $32 million over two years, just as momentum is building for the district to make significant improvements for the first time in decades. Voters elected three new members to the IPS board in November, giving the board a solid majority who support sweeping change and have begun to act accordingly. The board recently revamped its core values to prioritize making IPS a system of autonomous, accountable schools and ensuring the Central Office exists “solely to support the work of teachers and schools.”

And because of a unique law the legislature passed last year and the new IPS Board supports, IPS has a real opportunity to transform itself. The new law allows IPS to create “Innovation Network Schools,” which have the freedom to make key school-level decisions while maintaining access to district resources – a rare combination for success.

Because of this, education innovators are beginning to seek the opportunity to start schools within IPS. Since last year, more than 160 people have applied to the Innovation School Fellowship, a program The Mind Trust created in partnership with IPS and the City of Indianapolis to find and empower leaders to start Innovation Network Schools.

It’s important to ensure growing districts have resources to serve their students, and IPS has a history of inefficiency that has been acknowledged and addressed in budget conversations and through ongoing work with the Indy Chamber’s Operational Analysis Team. But cutting funding for high performing charter schools and a district that is poised for significant change could send an unwelcoming message to innovators thinking about starting schools in our city and thwart our critical progress to empower talent to drive education transformation in our city.

Every city across the country is competing to attract education leaders who can implement change in their communities. Providing the right landscape for success is a critical piece of winning the competition. That’s why maintaining funding for schools serving low-income students is so important.

But it shouldn’t be a one-way street. To keep their funding, IPS must guarantee that their dollars will be spent efficiently – and channeled to classrooms. The district’s bloated administration has begun to shrink, but it hasn’t happened fast enough.

We’re confident, given the new IPS board’s pledges and action, those necessary changes can accelerate, and so can the momentum to build a pipeline of education leaders to transform student outcomes. So let’s make funding high-poverty schools a priority – for the sake of these leaders, and the thousands of children who stand to benefit from their work.

Huber is president and CEO of the Indy Chamber. Harris is founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform nonprofit.