- Should a mayor who won re-election with 16 percent of the potential vote be given control of schools because of low turnout in school board elections?
- Is the answer to too little democracy, in other words, less democracy?
Who's the board? It's the people chosen, for better or worse, without suburban supervision, by residents of the Indianapolis Public Schools territory to educate more than 30,000 children.
A better question: Who is "We," and who elected "Us"?
It wasn't We the People, but We the People get most of the bill. The $700,000 study that produced an IPS overhaul plan enjoyed a $500,000 grant from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a champion of non-public education and the state's co-leader with Gov. Mitch Daniels in channeling public money into privatization.
The wholly unsurprising makeover/takeover plan, with its emphases on charter schools, the gelding of the IPS central office and the disempowering of central city voters as well as the teachers union, fits the pattern of the prevailing "reform" movement but hardly strikes this writer as a blueprint for better times in and of itself.
Site-based decision-making was tried in IPS, and collapsed in the face of relentless pupil mobility. Mayorally appointed school boards have been tried in other cities, without notable success. Charter schools, for-profit and nonprofit, have not outperformed traditional public schools.
Yet these are the power relationships that eclipse pedagogy in the made-up minds of business-model reformers. Get the administration, the board, the union, the messy local politics "moved out of the way," and impose a simplified education market in which families' choices will be limited to consumer choices. And first, by all means, declare the system broken.
If the system is not broken, but merely running unsatisfactorily (like many of its neighbor systems), then reformers have a problem. They must find ways to help, not merely people and structures to discard. They must acknowledge strengths (of which IPS has many). They must address the low profile given school board races in the election process. They must answer for their own funding cuts, to education directly and to the demands of the monster at its doorstep called poverty.
If, on the other hand, class size and hunger and crime and families fighting to survive can be portrayed as excuses on the part of complacent incompetents who stand in the way of efficiency, the stage is set for a handover of control.
This is a national, even international, phenomenon. Check the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council. Check the Milton Friedman brigade out of the University of Chicago and the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Your Republican lawmakers, and some key Democrats as well, are listening to them. Are the people who own the public schools too few, and too small, to be heard?
Carpenter is Star op-ed columnist. Contact him at (317) 444-6172 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.