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A holiday feast: public transit, education 

It was as if Indianapolis had two enormous packages under the tree on Christmas morning. Although neither one sported much in the way of bells and whistles, they both had a certain hum about them, the potential to really change the way people live around here.

In the span of a single week, proposals were unveiled that would transform both our public transportation system and our public schools.

This is like being served a multi-course meal with a big slice of cheesecake for dessert when you've been living on nuts and berries. A shock to the system is a distinct possibility.

The new, revised transit plan is good news not because it's visionary or comprehensive — but because it might actually have a chance of getting done. Rather than attempt to encompass all the counties in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, the plan focuses admirably on just two: Marion and Hamilton. These are the counties where the need for transit is the most acute, which means they are also the places where the benefits will be most obvious.

Reducing the number of counties also reduces the cost of the project, as well as the time necessary to make it a reality. A previous eight-county plan would have taken 25 years and cost $2.4 billion. The new, streamlined version can be accomplished in 10 years for a $1 billion less.

Most important, the new plan emphasizes bus transit, promising to double the size of IndyGo's fleet. Relying on buses makes sense. Consider how long it's taken to extend the Cultural Trail from downtown through Fountain Square. Building urban rail lines would make that seem like a garden party. Buses are cheaper and, perhaps most important, can be up and running quickly. Since the new transit plan will add about $10 a month to everyone's income tax, providing a service that people can use as soon as possible will be vital.

There are questions. Doubling the buses may seem like a lot, but is it really enough? Also, has sufficient thought gone into building not just shelters, but bus stations that can serve as economic engines in neighborhoods needing a boost? What about streets? Does the city have a plan for re-routing traffic to make bus transit as efficient as possible and provide a disincentive for people to use cars? And finally, what about a referendum? Assuming the state legislature even lets us have a vote on transit, what will be done to make sure the proposal has a maximum chance of passing?

This is heady stuff. A new, improved transit system could really change the way we experience Indianapolis. But an even greater impact could be gained by getting our act together when it comes to public education.

That's where The Mind Trust, the nonprofit organization charged with improving public education in the city, comes in. The organization's report, paid for in large part by the Indiana Department of Education and prepared by a North Carolina consulting group, calls for four major changes to the way public schools are managed in this city.

The plan would shift responsibilities and funding priorities in order to make free pre-school available to all 4-year-olds. It would replace the elected school board with a five-member board appointed by the mayor and City-County Council. The IPS Central Office would be gutted, reduced from 512 positions to 65; its $53.3 million budget would be cut to $10 million, with the difference redistributed to schools. Individual schools would have greater autonomy to develop programs.

While these ideas may, at first blush, appear radical, the longer you look at them the more they seem an extension of momentum already underway. As I have recently argued, IPS is no longer a system, but is, in fact, an archipelago of magnets and other themed buildings. The Mind Trust plan carries this movement to its logical conclusion, with schools trumping administrative hierarchy. Rather than giving parents a choice about where to send their kids, it will require parents to select an educational destination.

Whether such a scheme can work with the administrative skeleton crew The Mind Trust envisions is debatable. What seems beyond question though, is the increasing obsolescence of the current IPS administration. Someday Superintendent Eugene White is going to step down. Who will replace him and, more to the point, what will they be asked to do? It's easy to imagine a job description calling on the new super to implement just the sorts of restructuring The Mind Trust calls for.

With one exception. The state legislature will have to allow our schools to be run through the mayor's office. While mayoral control of schools is not a silver bullet — the track record in other cities is murky — it does create a level of accountability that's lacking currently. Voters know who the mayor is; most of us are clueless about who serves on the school board. This is democracy's dark side, where uninformed voters elect people they know virtually nothing about. Mayoral control isn't perfect, but it's hard to say it would be worse than what we've got.

Talk about a holiday feast ... it's a lucky thing we've got all of 2012 to digest it.

Happy New Year!

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