Indianapolis’ Lewis Ferebee tapped as next chancellor of D.C. Public Schools

Lewis Ferebee will be the next chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, officials announced Monday, leaving a leadership hole at Indianapolis Public Schools, where he has served for five years.

His departure is not a complete surprise, as Ferebee pursued the top job in Los Angeles earlier this year. But Ferebee’s move raises major questions for Indianapolis, a district that has pursued a slew of dramatic, and controversial, changes under his tenure.

Most prominently, Ferebee — a former teacher and principal who spent much of his career in North Carolina — oversaw the creation of the 31,000-student district’s innovation network, a group of charter and charter-like schools, sometimes managed by outside operators, that remained under the auspices of the district and are not automatically part of unions. To some national philanthropies and advocates, the district has served as a blueprint for the “portfolio model” of managing a city’s schools thanks to its close relationship between district and charter schools.

But Ferebee, who will start full-time on Jan. 31 and make a base salary of $280,000, said Monday that he would continue to follow D.C.’s existing approach rather than bring in ideas from Indianapolis.

“I want to be clear about any strategies that have been implemented in Indianapolis Public Schools are not solutions for DCPS. And so it is not my intent to transport strategies from Indianapolis as a panacea for moving us into our next phase of excellence,” he said during a news conference announcing his appointment. “I don’t come to the table assuming that I have all the answers.”

[Read more: 8 things to know about Lewis Ferebee and what he might bring to Washington, D.C.

Ferebee has had the backing of the school board and of the influential local nonprofit The Mind Trust as he pursued that approach. But it’s also drawn pushback, including from some community groups and the local teachers union.

In the most recent school board election, two critics of the innovation network ousted incumbents. Those new divisions on the board could complicate the search for Ferebee’s replacement.

Indianapolis voters did approve a tax hike for schools in that election, a win for the district. But the district is still likely to face steep budget cuts in the years ahead, and it recently closed four high schools.

The IPS board said in a statement that members will meet soon to discuss interim leadership and a selection process.

“We also want to make sure we don’t let a vacancy linger,” said Board President Michael O’Connor, adding that in some cases, boards have chosen retired superintendents to step in to interim positions, such as when IPS hired Peggy Hinckley, former superintendent of Warren Township schools, to come in after then-Superintendent Eugene White left. But the board could also choose an outsider.

At least one board member wished she had known earlier that Ferebee was eyeing the new job.  “I would have liked to have been kind of apprised of the sort of seriousness of his conversations sooner,” Mary Ann Sullivan said. 

Education insiders weren’t surprised by Ferebee’s departure, and some viewed it as a stamp of approval of the work done in Indianapolis. 

“I honestly don’t think this is a sad day for the reforms in Indianapolis,” Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, said. “I think it’s actually a day to celebrate that our superintendent was chosen to lead schools in Washington, D.C.,” adding that it’s hard to think of  “a better testament to the momentum that has taken 20 years to build on here than that.”

In D.C., Ferebee will enter a city similar in some respects to Indianapolis. The districts serve about the same numbers of students, and both cities have a large charter sector and a joint enrollment system for district and charter schools, though in Indianapolis the system includes only district magnet schools.

But D.C. is a high-profile district that’s been roiled by scandal in recent years. Ferebee’s predecessor, Antwan Wilson, was forced out after circumventing the city’s enrollment system to get his daughter into a preferred school.

Ferebee beat out interim DCPS head Amanda Alexander for the job.

Ferebee will now report to a mayor — Muriel Bowser, who just won re-election — rather than a school board whose members have divergent views. D.C. schools are also much better funded, spending among the most in the country.

And D.C. does not have a similar network of charter-like innovation schools. One key question is whether Ferebee will try to create one, risking the controversy that has followed the approach in Indianapolis or whether, as he said Monday, he won’t try to replicate programs.

“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 school board member leading up to this year’s election. “The serious business of teaching is left to nonprofits that can and will move on when the money moves away.”

“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. “Despite inflammatory charges to the contrary, our Innovation Network Schools, serving IPS students and families, are 100 percent accountable to the IPS school board.”

Ferebee won’t remain in Indianapolis long enough to see whether innovation is a proven strategy for school improvement. The district’s test results have been stagnant since new, harder tests were introduced for grades 3-8 in 2015 and grade 10 in 2016. The percentage of elementary and middle school students who passed both the English and math ISTEP in 2018 was 23.7 percent, according to results released in October, down 0.8 percentage points from last year. Among high-schoolers, 5.3 percent passed both exams, down 3.5 percentage points from 2017.

IPS has seen graduation rates rise, a priority for officials in recent years. For the 2016-17 school year, 83 percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from the year before.

As education observers look ahead, some feel trepidation that the district’s leader is leaving at an uncertain time.

“I personally feel like it’s not a good time, but when will be a good time?” asked board member Venita Moore. “We have so many things we are trying to accomplish over the next year or two.”