The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


By now the news has had time to sink in: The state

will take over four schools in Indianapolis — Arlington,


and Manual

high schools and the Emma

Donnan Middle School


Just what this means, exactly, remains to be seen.

That's because the state isn't actually going to take charge of these so-called

"failing" schools. The state is turning management of them over to

private operators who will then be charged with providing kids with a better

education in these buildings than they were getting before.

Some people think this is good news. They think

students at these schools have been getting cheated out of a decent education

by inept teachers and administrators.

Other people think the takeovers are terrible. They

argue that while these schools have certainly been wracked with problems, it's

wrong to think that putting them in the hands of private operators is going to

solve anything. They also object to what they see as an assault on our public

education system.

Time, of course, will tell. One thing, though, seems

clear: the public education system as we have known it in Indianapolis is

almost certainly finished.

Actually, you could argue that Indianapolis has never

had a truly coherent system of public education. Racial


kept city schools from being truly unified.

But it also must be said that, during that period, the

overall quality of education here was better than it would ever be again. Those

were the glory days of Crispus

Attucks High School

— the city's "Black" high school

— and, a few miles north, Shortridge.

More important, that was a time when neighborhood schools were a source of

stability for the families who lived in close proximity to the places where

their kids were taught.

Court-ordered busing, the first major intervention

into the administration of Indianapolis

Public Schools

by outside interests, put an end to that era. In 1971,

federal Judge Hugh

Dillin found that IPS was organized around racial lines

and ordered that

African-American kids be bussed to predominantly white schools. In 1981, a federal

court ordered that 7,000 African-American kids be shipped to schools in other

townships. The consequence: Since 1971, IPS has lost over 70,000 students and

closed more than 100 schools.

Now IPS has a student population that hovers around

30,000, not exactly the kind of number you would ordinarily associate with a

city of almost one million people.

In spite of the structural and social challenges that

have dogged its path, IPS has created innovative magnet schools, including

Montessori options, the Centers for Inquiry, and the Key School, as well as

programs designed around the arts and humanities, the sciences and civics.

But even these programs have, in a backhanded way,

undermined the fundamental concept of a unified school system, substituting a

smorgasbord of options for a comprehensive vision defining what a meaningful

education, for all kids, should be.

In the highly touted film about the crisis in American

education, Waiting

For Superman

, the case was made that the high-water mark in American

public schools came during the baby boom of the 1950s and '60s. Schools were

built in record numbers and academic achievement soared.

But public education in those days wasn't about

providing families with an array of options, tailored to learning styles. It

was one size fits all, and kids were tracked for vocational studies or college

prep. In many ways, schools seemed to be modeled on the draft experience that

so many parents lived through during the second World War.

In World

War II

, millions of young men from around the country were drafted. The

armed forces became the closest approximation of America's supposed melting pot

that anyone had ever seen, as guys from big cities were thrown together with

country boys and all manner of ethnic groups mingled (as long as they were


Postwar public schools took a similar tack. There was

a basic curriculum and everyone experienced it together, regardless of what

part of town — or what part of the country — they lived in. It may

not have been the best way to educate kids, but it was a mighty unifying


I suspect that experience is at the heart of what the

defenders of public education are talking about when they lament the

dismantling of IPS. Trouble is, the people who remember a time when public

education really worked are getting older. Most of us no longer have school-age

kids of our own. The issue of what happens to IPS is increasingly abstract

— it's not about what impacts our families, but our city and its

"quality of life." While we can appreciate what's at stake, it's

happening at a distance. Younger parents necessarily feel a greater urgency.

Their kids' lives are happening here and now and are more important than the

perpetuation of an idea called IPS.

I'm doubtful about whether state-sponsored school

takeovers can work. But without a truly unified educational system, school

reform can only take place one building at a time. That's what we've come to.

IPS — the Indianapolis Public Schools system — is done.