Op-eds | April 20, 2017

Harris: Lawmakers must invest in IPS success

Indianapolis Public Schools has made unprecedented strides over the last few years to operate more efficiently while improving educational opportunities for some of the city’s most disadvantaged students. In a state that has long focused on outcomes-driven approaches, Indiana policymakers should reward IPS’ efforts and support the district’s positive trajectory.

The Indiana Senate budget proposal would do that by providing an increase in IPS’ per-pupil funding—from $7,668 to $7,779 in the 2017-2018 school year. However, in the budget proposal put forward by the House, the state’s largest district is poised to receive a $100-per-pupil reduction. That doesn’t include federal or local funding, but it represents the largest slice of the district’s annual dollars.

As lawmakers negotiate the budget’s final details, they should carefully consider the importance of rewarding IPS’ success as a rare urban district making strides to improve student outcomes.

A budget cut for IPS would mark a move in the wrong direction and threaten momentum in the district at a critical time.

Since 2013, under the leadership of the IPS board and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, IPS has embraced critical and long-overdue changes. These include allowing school leaders to have greater control over key decisions like curriculum and staffing, creating incentive programs to attract and keep top teacher and principal talent, and reducing administrative costs so more dollars can be spent in the classroom.

For years, state and community leaders have been calling for these types of reforms in IPS, and now that they’re in motion, such changes have put the district on a path toward dramatic improvement. While IPS’ results on ISTEP+ and other assessments are not yet where we want them to be, the foundation for critical change has been laid, and IPS is moving in a positive direction for the first time in decades.

In a district where nearly seven out of 10 kids receive free or reduced-price lunch, IPS is making key changes that over time will demonstrate that all its kids, regardless of economic circumstances, can succeed.

The House’s proposed financial cuts would not only be a setback to this progress, they also would directly hurt students who need the most support. For example, IPS relies on per-pupil revenue for essential services like mental health and behavioral support for students, extended learning opportunities, and literacy coordinators, among other services and resources designed to boost academic achievement.

The proposed budget reductions would also send a discouraging signal to the very educators who seek supportive environments in which to do their life-changing work. This is especially counterproductive as the district strives to entice the best and brightest educational talent from here and elsewhere to make an impact in Indianapolis classrooms.

There is no doubt lawmakers face a challenging task of balancing myriad state budget priorities, from improving infrastructure to tackling Indiana’s growing opioid epidemic. And lawmakers also must balance multiple funding priorities within education, including increased pre-K support, funding for English-language learners, and resources for growing school districts. But having high-quality public schools is paramount to the success of Indianapolis’ urban core.

As lawmakers consider next year’s budget, fueling continued progress in IPS must be a top priority. Even with limited resources, we must invest our education dollars strategically—to support the needs of Indianapolis’ low-income students and fuel our state’s future workforce and success.

Harris is founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit focused on growing high-quality schools in Indianapolis.