5 questions on Lewis Ferebee’s record in Indianapolis as he seeks to lead D.C. schools

As Lewis Ferebee faces confirmation hearings before securing the top job in Washington, D.C., schools, his record as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools offers insight into how he would lead.

The D.C. Council has long been expected to sign off on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s superintendent choice, according to the Washington Post, and the council’s chair reportedly said this week that Ferebee remains on track for confirmation. Ferebee is already two weeks into his stint as interim chancellor. Still, council members have vowed a rigorous process.

That process kicked off with a community meeting last week and will continue with a second Wednesday evening. At the third hearing, set for Feb. 12, Ferebee will answer lawmakers’ questions under oath.

That means Ferebee could still face difficult questions about his record, his vision for the future, and how he would adjust to a new district with different priorities and challenges. Here are some questions that council and community members could ask if they want to get a better sense of Ferebee and his potential impact.

Does he think more D.C. schools should operate like charter schools? When his nomination was announced, Ferebee said he did not intend to “transport strategies from Indianapolis.” But he made his name with his cornerstone initiative, “innovation schools” that are part of the district but run by outside operators. Ferebee lobbied Indiana lawmakers to allow the arrangement, and four years after the program launched, innovation schools enroll more than a quarter of Indianapolis Public Schools students. They take many forms, from struggling neighborhood schools that are handed over to charter operators to largely independent charter schools that work with the district.

The endeavor has won Ferebee national attention, and it might be one of the reasons Bowser chose him to lead D.C.’s school system. Does he want to emulate the model in D.C.? If so, what pieces would he want to put in place, which would he want to leave behind, and what challenges would he anticipate in making all of that happen? Those questions would help council members understand how much Ferebee plans to shake up existing schools and how involved he wants to be in the day-to-day operations of local schools. They would also shed light on how developed his thoughts are about the differences between the two districts.

How ready is he for a bigger stage? One big difference that Ferebee can reasonably expect in D.C. is more scrutiny and public criticism than he faced for much of his tenure in Indianapolis. There, he enjoyed unusual support from influential local leaders and the school board that hired him and little organized opposition, in part because of a weakened local teachers union. Washington, As a result, he could make major changes even amid criticism from parents and teachers who sometimes said they felt blindsided by changes and ignored when they offered feedback. (The climate might have been one reason that the sex-abuse reporting scandal that is attracting significant attention in D.C. caused controversy in Indianapolis but did not derail him.)

Even school board members who supported his leadership raised concerns that the district was not doing enough to communicate with and engage families. That pressure is likely to be even stronger in D.C., where the resignation of the last permanent chancellor amid scandal has created a strong appetite for transparency,  a theme at Ferebee’s first confirmation hearing last week. And while the D.C teachers union also is not considered especially powerful, educators everywhere are watching activism get results right now, presenting another opportunity for conflict.

Is Ferebee ready for more scrutiny, more criticism, and more pressure to engage families than he faced before? Council members should listen for indications of how he would weather challenges that are sure to lie ahead and how he plans to adjust his approach to avert them. Doing so could be essential if they want to avoid another confirmation process for another chancellor in the not-too-distant future.

Will he be a leader or a follower? In Indianapolis, Ferebee worked for a school board that largely supported remaking Indianapolis Public Schools into a “portfolio” district that brought charter schools into the fold, a strategy pushed by powerful local allies. He carried out that vision faithfully, expanding innovation schools and joining a common enrollment system used for district and charter schools. And the daylight between him and that coalition rarely showed. How did his decisions in Indianapolis diverge from those advocated by portfolio advocates? In what ways did he push back against the board that hired him? As chancellor in Washington, D.C., will he carry out Bowser’s vision for the schools, continue to pursue the portfolio approach — or develop a new strategy for improving the district? Knowing the answers to those questions will help council members understand how Ferebee sees the role of chancellor and how he would approach the challenge of improving struggling schools.

What is his plan for improving test results for students of color? D.C. is brimming with frustration over the school system’s performance. Earlier this month, council members gave a series of speeches critiquing the schools, with the council chairman describing the gap in passing rates between white students and children of color as “embarrassing.”

As chancellor, Ferebee would be charged with tackling that gap — but his track record for improving test scores for students of color is weak. Observers in D.C. have clearly picked up on that: A recent profile of Ferebee emphasizes the bleak test results for schools under his direct supervision. His allies have pointed to test gains at schools where outside operators have been given vast control day-to-day management. In a system where Ferebee will have a harder time partnering with outside managers, at least without major changes, what are his ideas for achieving a different outcome? And to what extent does oversight of what happens inside classrooms — what students are taught and how — fit into Ferebee’s vision for his chancellorship in D.C.?

What are his personal ambitions? Ferebee has been a fixture on the education policy conference circuit in recent years, stepping away from Indianapolis to represent the district at gatherings of education officials in other cities. This was an approach that elevated the Indianapolis story and his personal profile. Is D.C. the bigger stage Ferebee has been seeking? If the council wants someone focused on local schools and more interested in local solutions than advancing a particular ideology, members should listen closely to how Ferebee responds to questions about his own future.