David Hoppe

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:: IPS is done

There is no system

By David Hoppe

By now the news has had time to sink in: State Superintendent Tony Bennett has determined that the state will take over four schools in Indianapolis - Arlington, Howe and Manual high schools and the Emma Donnan Middle School.

Just what this means, exactly, remains to be seen. That's because the state isn't actually going to take charge of these so-called "failing" schools. The state is turning management of them over to private operators who will then be charged with providing kids with a better education in these buildings than they were getting before.

Some people think this is good news. They think students at these schools have been getting cheated out of a decent education by inept teachers and administrators.

Other people think the takeovers are terrible. They argue that while these schools have certainly been wracked with problems, it's wrong to think that putting them in the hands of private operators is going to solve anything. They also object to what they see as an assault on our public education system.

Time, of course, will tell. One thing, though, seems clear: the public education system as we have known it in Indianapolis is almost certainly finished.

Actually, you could argue that Indianapolis has never had a truly coherent system of public education. Racial segregation kept city schools from being truly unified.

But it must also be said that, during this period, the overall quality of education here was better than it would ever be again. These were the glory days of Crispus Attucks High School - the city's "Black" high school - and, on the other side of town, Shortridge. More important, this was a time when neighborhood schools were a source of stability for the families who lived in close proximity to the places where their kids were taught.

Court-ordered bussing, the first major intervention into the administration of IPS by outside interests, put an end to this era. In 1971, Federal Judge Hugh Dillon found that IPS was organized around racial lines and ordered that African-American kids be bussed to predominantly white schools. In 1981, a Federal court ordered that 7,000 African-American kids be shipped to schools in other townships. The consequence: Since 1971, IPS has lost over 70,000 students and closed more than 100 schools.

Now IPS has a student population that hovers around 30,000, not exactly the kind of number you would ordinarily associate with a city of almost one million people.

In spite of the structural and social challenges that have dogged its path, IPS has created innovative magnet schools, including Montessori options, the Centers for Inquiry, and the Key School, as well as programs designed around the arts and humanities, the sciences and civics.

But even these programs have, in a backhanded way, undermined the fundamental concept of a unified school system, substituting a smorgasbord of options for a comprehensive vision defining what a meaningful education, for all kids, should be.

In the highly touted film about the crisis in American education, Waiting For Superman , the case was made that the high water mark in American public schools came during the Baby Boom of the 1950s and '60s. Schools were built in record numbers and academic achievement soared.

But public education in those days wasn't about providing families with an array of options, tailored to learning styles. It was one size fits all, and kids were tracked for vocational studies or college prep. In many ways, schools seemed to be modeled on the draft experience that so many parents lived through during the Second World War.

In World War II, millions of young men from around the country were drafted. The armed forces became the closest approximation of America's supposed melting pot that anyone had ever seen, as guys from big cities were thrown together with country boys and all manner of ethnic groups mingled (as long as they were white).

Postwar public schools took a similar tack. There was a basic curriculum and everyone experienced it together, regardless of what part of town -- or what part of the country - they lived in. It may not have been the best way to educate kids, but it was a mighty unifying experience.

I suspect that experience is at the heart of what the defenders of public education are talking about when they lament the dismantling of IPS. Trouble is, the people who remember a time when public education really worked are getting older. Most of us no longer have school-age kids of our own. The issue of what happens to IPS is increasingly abstract - it's not about what impacts our families, but our city and its "quality of life." While we can appreciate what's at stake, it's happening at a distance. Younger parents necessarily feel a greater urgency. Their kids' lives are happening here and now and are more important than the perpetuation of an idea called IPS.

I'm doubtful about whether state-sponsored school takeovers can work. But without a truly unified educational system, school reform can only take place one building at a time. That's what we've come to. IPS - the Indianapolis Public System - is done.