School-Board Change Is First Step to Reform

December 19, 2011

For release Dec. 21 and thereafter (670 words)

Changing the selection process for the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) board is no silver bullet, but it is an essential step toward transformation of the state’s largest school system.

The elected board has had decades to shake things up and failed. It’s time to give the mayor and City-County Council a chance to find people of courage to lead a bone-deep restructuring of IPS, as urged Sunday by the Mind Trust, an education reform organization in Indianapolis.

Although it’s just one piece of the group’s broad reform plan, it’s a non-negotiable. The current seven-member elected board lacks willpower to alter the status quo to the extent required.

Besides, a locally appointed school board is a better option than one alternative being discussed: a state takeover of Indianapolis schools.

And it’s not unprecedented. Although the vast majority of local school boards (274 of 290) are elected in Indiana, 16 are appointed by the mayor, county commissioner, city council or some combination, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Valparaiso Community Schools is an example of an appointed board. Four of its five members are appointed by the City Common Council and the other by a township advisory board.

The Mind Trust recommends that the Indianapolis mayor appoint three members of a new five-member board. The City-County Council would appoint the other two, one chosen by the Democratic caucus and the other by Republicans. Short-term, this would favor Republicans under just re-elected Greg Ballard, but long-term Democrats are likely to hold a majority in City Hall.

“The only way to make a plan this bold happen and succeed is if it stays at the top of the city’s agenda for years,” the Mind Trust said. “The mayor is best positioned to provide this sustained leadership.”

Chicago, New York and Boston all have school boards appointed by the mayor, and Baltimore’s is appointed jointly by the mayor and governor. In Washington D.C. the mayor has direct control over schools.

Critics were quick to say that appointed boards are no better than elected ones. Research is mixed. A 2007 study by Economist Gary A. Hoover at the University of Alabama concluded, “There are no differences in student performance when the school superintendent or the school board is appointed rather than elected.”

The Mind Trust cited a report by education researchers at Indiana University Bloomington that showed “students in Indiana school districts governed
 by appointed boards tend to score higher on the ISTEP than students in districts with elected board members, controlling for other factors in a standard regression analysis.”

A 2008 article by Frederick Hess in the American Journal of Education said changing governance is not itself a strategy to improve student performance but rather “a promising way to jump start coherent and sustained school improvement.”

In almost any context, change in leadership is more likely than current leadership to effect reforms. That may explain why two Indiana school districts with appointed boards are switching over to elected ones. House Bill 1074 last session replaced a five-member mayor-appointed board in East Chicago with a nine-member elected board.

The same bill allowed voters in Mishawaka to decide whether to switch from a mayor-appointed board to a hybrid with three members chosen by voters, one by the mayor and one by the City Council. The referendum passed in November by a huge margin.

If it sounds like change for change’s sake, that might be a good thing too. A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that change is good for an organization even when it’s not in crisis. It gets people “to start forming new networks, making the organization as a whole more creative. It also disrupts all the routines in an organization that collectively stifle innovation and adaptability.”

There’s no good reason for the Mind Trust to wait until 2013, as it has indicated it will, to lobby the legislature for an appointed IPS school board. On the contrary, a freshly named school board committed to reform is a necessary prerequisite for deeper restructuring.

Andreas Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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