Future of Schools

As Indianapolis moves to give principals more freedom, tough choices are on the horizon

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students listen as their teacher gives a small group lesson at Indianapolis Public School's Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Indianapolis’ largest district is pursuing a new vision for education that aims to shift power from the central office to building principals. But as leaders move forward with their plan, they are facing a host of questions over how — and when — to cede control.

If schools are historically low-performing, should their principals still get full freedom? How can central office staff be encouraged to give up power? What decisions should be left up to principals?

Those are a few of the issues facing Indianapolis Public Schools leaders as they pursue a plan to give principals at all traditional schools in the district more control over instruction, budgets, and staffing by 2020.

Twelve schools have already been designated “autonomous” schools and given some of that freedom by the district, though they are still bound by the teachers union contract. That’s a separate effort from the district’s innovation schools, which are not unionized and are managed by outside partners who have near complete control over their operations.

The task ahead of the district is to figure out how to keep its promise to grant new freedom to dozens more schools – including schools that have struggled in the past.

Board members grappled with how that should work this week during a board retreat. Here are some of the big questions the board discussed.

Should all principals get the same level of flexibility?

Although most board members support giving principals more freedom, there was little consensus on just what that should ultimately look like.

Board member Diane Arnold said that low-performing schools often rely on support from the district, and giving them too much freedom could lead to “disaster.”

“For me the key is performance,” she said. “I think if all of our schools had great building leaders, I would be comfortable. But I don’t think we are there yet.”

Board member Elizabeth Gore disagreed. “No matter what the school performance is, that particular principal should be able to have the same flexibility as a high-performing school,” she said.

How will district staff need to adapt?

Nearly all of the board members agreed that for autonomous schools to succeed, the district needs leaders who are OK with giving up power and principals ready to take on new responsibilities.

Some are not yet ready for the change, many board members agreed.

The district needs people in the central office who “innately trust in the leadership of their buildings,” said board member Kelly Bentley, and “the right leaders in those buildings that can handle that kind of autonomy.”

Are there some things — such as the arts — schools should be required to offer?

Some board members argued that the district should set requirements for how schools use their time, including what courses they offer or how much time they allot for things like recess. Others suggested that the focus should be on establishing goals and allowing school leaders to reach them however they wish.

“There ought to be some minimum requirements on what has to be offered across the board,” said Bentley. “If schools want to go above that, I think they should be free to do that.”

Board member Mary Ann Sullivan thought otherwise. The district leadership could instead set goals for things like musical exposure, for example.

“How the schools do that is up to the school,” she said. “I don’t think we should get that prescriptive.”

#GovTest

Where Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker stand on key education issues, from charters to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: (Rauner) Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images; (Pritzker) Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Our conversations with Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) and challenger J.B. Pritzker will be aired on Oct. 3 on WBEZ 91.5 FM.

The race for Illinois governor is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history, and anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has probably seen or heard one of the barrage of ads for the candidates. There have been puppies, toilets, and plenty of barbs over wealth and taxes — and the back-and-forth has drowned out the discussion over where the candidates stand on education, arguably one of the most crucial policy areas facing the state.

To dig deeper, Chalkbeat Chicago is teaming up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for a WBEZ/Chalkbeat 2018 Election Special: Testing the Candidates. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker each have agreed to join us for a conversation about where they stand on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

The interviews will be separate, but will be broadcast back-to-back on WBEZ 91.5 FM on Oct. 3 starting at 8 a.m.  

In advance of the discussion, Chalkbeat and WBEZ asked each candidate for his position on five questions, and we’ve reprinted their answers in their entirety. We’re also soliciting interview suggestions from our readers and listeners. Use this form to submit a question to us, and follow along with the discussion on Oct. 3 using #GovTest.

#GovTest

What would you ask Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker about education?

Chalkbeat Chicago is teaming up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for a WBEZ/Chalkbeat 2018 Election Special: Testing the Candidates. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker each have agreed to join us for a conversation about where they stand on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

Use the form below to submit questions for the conversations, which will air back-to-back on Oct. 3 at 8 a.m.