(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

A new vision for Indianapolis Public Schools — less central oversight, more freedom for principals and the hope that it will lead to experimentation and new ideas for how to help kids overcome learning barriers — has been in the works for nearly four years.

Now school leaders hope an entirely new system will emerge over the next three years.

The IPS strategic plan calls for granting schools greater independence from district control and more flexibility to manage their budgets without direction from the central office. But that freedom could come with higher expectations for student success and consequences when schools fall short.

Leadership changes bring new ideas

In December of 2011, the school reform organization The Mind Trust issued a blockbuster report calling on the district to transform schools, giving principals more freedom and holding them accountable for student results.

Then-superintendent Eugene White quickly rejected the plan as naive.

But just a year later, White was forced out by a new school board majority that embraced ideas The Mind Trust put forward.

It was the watershed election of 2012 which elected three new reform-oriented Indianapolis Public school board members. Within days of taking office, they persuaded White to resign and began searching for a new leader.

The found Lewis Ferebee, then serving as chief of staff for the superintendent in Durham, N.C.

Since coming to Indianapolis in September 2012, Ferebee has strongly supported a move toward school autonomy, crafting a framework to transition IPS toward more principal freedom that the board approved in October.

But IPS has already begun to launch schools with more independence, calling them “innovation network schools.”

So far, all schools operating under that arrangement are being managed by outside groups, including charter school networks.

New state laws lead to new partnerships

What made innovation network schools possible is a new Indiana law that Ferebee helped write in conjunction with Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and a key Republican legislator.

In 2014, the Indiana legislature passed House Bill 1321, a law that allows IPS to lend school buildings to charter schools or partner with outside organizations, such as charter networks, to manage existing IPS schools.

This approach has won strong support from the legislature. In fact, the concept was expanded in 2015 when Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1009, allowing innovation schools statewide.

Since the law went into affect, the district has granted space to several charter schools, launched Emma Donnan Elementary in partnership with Charter Schools USA and joined with another charter school group to convert School 103, a long struggling elementary school, to the Phalen Leadership Academy at School 103.

At least two other schools, School 93 and Cold Spring School, are aiming to convert to innovation schools with the help of $50,000 each in seed money from the Mind Trust for planning.

A transition plan for IPS

Next year, schools in IPS will fall into one of three categories — traditionally managed schools, autonomous schools and innovation network schools.

Each group will operate under different oversight rules:

Traditional schools: For the next two years, most IPS schools will will have direct oversight from administrators in the central office, as they always have. Neighborhood schools across the district have been managed this way for decades, with big decisions about curriculum, materials, and budgets made at the central office. In the longer term, however, the district hopes to convert all traditional schools to autonomous and innovation schools.

Most magnet schools, which already operate with more freedom than neighborhood schools, will not change. They will remain classified under traditional schools for now.

Autonomous schools: As the district phases in autonomy, it will only give the added freedom to schools that apply to for the designation. The plan is pick six to eight schools in January of 2016 as pilot sites, with the aim of expanding the program to more schools the following year. District leaders are looking for a mix of magnet schools, elementary schools and high schools or middle schools.

Principals at autonomous schools will have more freedom to decide their approaches to teaching, how they use instructional time and how they train teachers. Teachers and staff at autonomous schools will still be considered district employees, and they will be part of district unions.

The school board is also looking to shift budget decisions from the central office to principals at autonomous schools. School board members have backed an approach called “student-based” or “weighted” budgeting, which would give a set amount of money to schools for each student, plus extra funds to help students who face barriers, such as still learning English as a new language or those with learning disabilities.

But weighted budgeting could reduce money for some schools that have the most experienced, and most costly, teachers. That money could be shifted to schools with fewer experienced teachers. The result might force a shift of teachers, and spending, from high-scoring schools to those that have struggled in recent years.

Innovation network schools: Innovation network schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside groups, such as non-profits or charter networks, already operate in a handful of IPS schools.

Innovation schools are run under contract with the school board, which has authority over them. The district pays the organizations running the schools a dollar amount for each student enrolled. Student test scores and A to F school accountability grades at the schools are attributed to IPS.

Daily management decisions for innovation network schools, from the teaching philosophy to building operations, are handled by the partner organizations, which have wide freedom to run the schools as they think best. Innovation schools are particularly controversial because staff and teachers are not district employees — they work for the management organization and they are not part of district unions.

The approach is also contentious because low-scoring traditional schools can be converted to innovation schools even if the principal and staff object. If a school is rated “F” or designated as failing for three consecutive years, the school board may vote to restart the school as an innovation school with an outside partner.

But some schools could also volunteer to convert to innovation schools with the support of the board, either because they are persistently failing or simply because school leaders want more flexibility. The district also can create innovation schools by housing a charter school in a district building or by founding a new school in partnership with an outside group.

A transition ahead

The process of converting IPS to a school district with a small central office monitoring empowered, semi-independent schools is in its early stages.

Pilot schools, which will try out operating autonomously in 2016-17, will be named in early 2016. Then IPS hopes to expand the group over the next two years.

At the same time, schools with the lowest test scores likely will continue to be converted to innovation network schools that will be managed externally. In most cases, those schools will be run by charter school networks. But some could be run by other types of outside groups or even by IPS employees who form new organizations to manage schools.

-Updated December 2015