Washington, D.C., is getting a new school chancellor, and it’s Lewis Ferebee, a former teacher, principal, and the current superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools.
With a modest demeanor and careful speaking style, Ferebee has kept a low public profile. But Ferebee has made a name for himself in education reform circles for the policies he’s pursued, forging a particularly close partnership with charter schools.
Indianapolis Public Schools, the central district of the 11 that make up the city, has been fighting against the forces of enrollment loss and concentrated poverty for decades. D.C. has different policy structures and a different political environment — as well as a much higher profile.
And although Ferebee told the Washington Post that he doesn’t see “any solutions that are being implemented in Indianapolis that I would say are absolutely necessary and important to the District right now,” the best guide to how Ferebee will work in D.C. is likely his five-year tenure in Indianapolis.
Here’s what you need to know about Lewis Ferebee.
1. He’s a former teacher and principal of district schools in North Carolina.
Ferebee was an unconventional choice for Indianapolis back in 2013. He had 16 years under his belt as an educator and a history of turning around schools, but he had no experience with charter schools and hadn’t served in the top spot in a large district.
He began his teaching career in Virginia, then moved to Greensboro, N.C., where he became an elementary and middle school principal credited with turning around those low-performing schools. He then supervised all city middle schools, and later led a special district that included all of Greensboro’s lowest-scoring schools.
He came to Indianapolis after serving as chief of staff for the Durham Public School system. Ferebee first attracted the attention of two school board members at a National School Boards Association meeting. “There was just something about him,” board member Annie Roof said at the time.
2. He’s known for creating a network of charter and charter-like schools under the auspices of the district.
Known as the innovation network, this group of schools has probably been both Ferebee’s most heralded and most criticized policy initiative.
Here’s how it works: The schools are a mix of completely new entities, former traditional district schools that had been struggling, previously independent charter schools, and former traditional district schools whose principals wanted more autonomy. The schools’ operations get farmed out to a charter network or another nonprofit groups under a contract with the school district. They are housed in district buildings, and their test scores and enrollment count toward district figures. Innovation network teachers are not unionized or governed by the district’s teachers’ contract.
Schools in the network now educate over 20 percent of the district’s students.
This approach is closely in line with the ideas favored by some national philanthropies that went to bring IPS’s approach to other cities. But it’s caused fierce pushback locally, where critics see it as privatization with limited accountability.
“The current board has been on a mission to privatize public schools in Indianapolis under the guise of innovation and/or reform, becoming the largest charter management provider in the city,” wrote one newly elected board member.
“The idea that IPS can prosper without embracing change and by being unwilling to partner with others is asinine,” Ferebee wrote in a 2016 letter to the editor responding to similar criticism.
Initial state test results suggest that students in those schools made substantial gains. Complicating matters, though, is the fact that new innovation schools are graded in a way that makes them look better than existing district schools. There has not been a formal study of the performance of the innovation network.
In 2017, Ferebee himself said, “it’s too early to name the innovation model as the panacea for struggling schools.”
3. Ferebee has become a favorite of many in the education reform community.
Ferebee has been a regular at education reform-oriented conferences, sitting on panels put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, New Schools Venture Fund, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The Arnold Foundation, a national philanthropy that has backed the “portfolio model,” has also invested in IPS’s approach under Ferebee, sending millions to the Mind Trust and to the district.
“If The Mind Trust can help to produce … gains in Indianapolis, the city can serve as a model for other communities across the nation,” John Arnold said in a 2016 video.
2017 brought Ferebee a flurry of national attention. He joined Chiefs for Change, a reform-oriented national group of superintendents and schools chancellors. He was also chosen as a fellow with the Broad Academy (where former D.C. schools chief Kaya Henderson served as “superintendent in residence”). Charter leader Eva Moskowitz included Ferebee on a list she released of preferred candidates for the New York City job that eventually went to Richard Carranza, the former Houston superintendent. And IPS’s innovation network won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
“It is a clear indication that the work in Indianapolis is seen as a national model,” Brandon Brown, head of the Mind Trust, said of Ferebee’s move to D.C.
4. He’s no firebrand.
Although Ferebee has been at the helm of controversial changes, he is a quiet presence. (Education Week once described him as “soft-spoken with a Zen-like demeanor.”) He prefers to work behind the scenes, makes relatively few public appearances in Indianapolis, and is known for having a small inner circle.
Ferebee followed the combative Eugene White into the superintendent’s job. White was often at odds with Republican city and state leaders. Ferebee proved more willing to play ball politically, working closely with Republican legislative leaders and pro-school-choice organizations to set the stage for his policy initiatives, drawing praise for his cooperative style.
5. He’s handled some scandal, but nothing earth-shaking.
Rigged graduation rates, an absenteeism crisis, families skirting enrollment rules — the issues at the center of D.C.’s various recent school scandals haven’t been prominent in Indianapolis.
In fact, it’s been a fairly scandal-free tenure for Ferebee, with one exception. The district drew intense criticism for its response to allegations that a school counselor had sex with students in 2016, not immediately reporting the claims to police or the Indiana Department of Child Services as required. (Ferebee acknowledged hearing about the initial allegations but said he was assured it was being reported properly.) Three federal lawsuits are still underway, and the counselor eventually pled guilty to three felony charges. Two other district officials were charged with misdemeanors related to the incident, and several resigned from their jobs with the district or were fired.
Ferebee has invested in trying to curb student absenteeism, though. In 2015-16, the district began offering rewards for attendance and targeted help for the frequently absent. It later hired eight new graduation counselors, efforts that have modestly boosted attendance.
6. He’s willing to compromise, and some say to capitulate.
In 2017, Ferebee and IPS proposed a nearly $1 billion tax hike to benefit schools. After opposition from the city’s chamber of commerce, the board scaled back the proposal. The new version passed last month, and officials have said the bulk of the money will go toward teacher raises.
The district is now set to face steep cuts, including possible school closures. The chamber and district agreed to a partnership where the chamber pays for two new district administrators and consulting by outside groups to implement the cost-cutting plan.
Observers say this level of involvement by a chamber of commerce is rare. When a school board member questioned whether the district would have the final say on the cuts, Ferebee tried to assure her that the district is “clearly driving this work.”
Ferebee didn’t roll over entirely to the wishes of the chamber, whose support was considered key to convincing voters to support the referendum. The chamber’s suggested plan was for a $152 million tax hike and more cuts, which Ferebee said wasn’t high enough. The two sides settled on a request for $220 million over eight years and a second measure to raise $52 million for improvements to school buildings.
7. He has closed schools in the face of community opposition.
Last year, Ferebee shut down three high schools, leaving just four district-run high schools left. The move prompted strong pushback and led to a substantial displacement of students and teachers.
The closures were not described as a school-improvement strategy, but as a financial necessity.
“Many people understand the need to right-size our high schools,” he said at the time, “but not many people wanted their high school to close, and it was a tough decision that had to be made.”
The four high schools left open were closer to the center of the city, making transportation easier as the district implemented a choice-based system that encouraged schools to specialize. But local critics said the district didn’t do enough listening.
“There was a lot of criticism with the closing of schools, bringing in charter schools through innovation schools, and converting schools to innovation,” said Charity Scott, executive director of the IPS Community Coalition, which has has opposed many of the district’s changes. “A lot of the community input is one the very tail end of those processes.”
8. He’s willing to dig into details.
When Ferebee was hired in 2013, he thought Indianapolis Public Schools was operating with a $30 million deficit. He spent that winter break digging into the district’s budget. And what he found was a shocker: the district wasn’t in the red — IPS had just been overstating budget shortfalls for years, and the district actually had an $8 million surplus.
Ferebee had his analysis corroborated and then shared the news with the board before firing the district’s chief financial officer.