By now the news has had time to sink in: The state
will take over four schools in Indianapolis — Arlington,
high schools and the Emma Donnan Middle School
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
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 segregation
segregationkept 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
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
Public Schoolsby outside interests, put an end to that era. In 1971,
federal Judge Hugh Dillin found that IPS was organized around racial lines
Dillin found that IPS was organized around racial linesand 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
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
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
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.