Yes, Indy Schools Are Broken, But They’re Not the Only Ones

April 21, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for April 23 and thereafter (696 words)


The hard-hitting series in the Indianapolis Star exposing the problems of the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) was thoughtful and poignant. This writer has known the IPS superintendent for over 20 years on a professional and personal basis. He has achieved national distinction and is widely hailed for his many professional accomplishments. He is a man of great vision, courage, integrity and dedication to children’s learning. He has an excellent intellect and outstanding leadership skills. He is surely one of the best leaders of schools in the country.

Despite all these accolades, though, the Star is right not to expect Dr. White to be the savior of IPS.

Why not? Because the system is broken and in need of repair — not just IPS but the system of public schooling throughout Indiana. It is designed more for adult interests than children’s interests. This writer has represented over 60 Indiana public school districts and has seen them from the inside. The same types of problems exposed by the Star could be exposed at nearly every school in Indiana. Our school districts are full of politics, self-dealing and self-interest groups with their own agendas. Some even have corruption.

W. Edward Deming, one of the founders of the Quality Movement, once observed that about 94 percent of an organization’s problems are due to the design of the system rather than the fault of the workers. Despite this, policy-makers continue to denigrate teachers and school building-level leaders by heaping more and more laws and bureaucratic regulations upon them. With this has come the near destruction of teacher and school-leader accountability, responsibility, creativeness and innovation. Policy-makers have reduced teachers and school leaders to compliance officers, their main duty being to enforce compliance with the thousands of laws and regulations that govern public education. It is time that state and federal legislators recognize that teachers and school leaders cannot be regulated into excellence.

Courageous school leaders are all too often quickly devoured by the domineering political system and the interest groups. Even if they succeed in reforming a school district here or there, the changes may be short-lived as interest groups elect new school board members to dismantle the reforms and return the district to status quo ante.

The system of public schooling in Indiana was created by the Legislature over 100 years ago in the horse-and-buggy era. It is past time to redesign that system to meet the needs of students and citizens in the 21st century.

A redesigned Indiana public school system should have these building blocks as its foundation:

The Freedom Schools model described in the spring issue of the Indiana Policy Review meets that criteria. Such a model, if adopted by the Indiana General Assembly, could save more than $50 million. How can that be? As with any bureaucracy, the state education bureaucracy can be substantially reduced by moving from a system that is highly regulated and political to one that is profession-centered. Conversely, as long as the system remains highly regulated by the Legislature and the bureaucracy it has put in place, even the most bureaucratic jobs are necessary. Someone, you see, has to fill out all the paperwork and assure compliance with the plethora of laws and regulations now governing Indiana schools.

This writer has faith in the many dedicated and caring professional educators who toil daily in this broken system. These same professionals, freed from excessive regulation and politics, would be able to improve student academic achievement. Let's give them the opportunity to do so.

Jeff Abbott, J.D., Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a former superintendent of the East Allen County School Corporation. He now is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Contact him at


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