Chalkbeat asked the 10 candidates running for an Indianapolis Public School Board to answer a survey about their positions on issues facing the district and its students. Below is one response. If you want to see how these answers compare to other candidates, please visit our interactive election tracker at in.chalkbeat.org/ipselection2014.
Josh Owens is an economics instructor at Butler University in Indianapolis. Formerly, he worked for startup and technology companies in the area. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and previously worked on economic, education and health policy for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was born and raised in Shelbyville, Ind. He is running for an at-large seat on the board against Annie Roof, Mary Ann Sullivan, David Hampton and Ramon Batts.
1. Do you support the direction of the school district under Superintendent Lewis Ferebee?
What, if anything, do you like about Ferebee’s leadership of the district? What would you change?
Dr. Ferebee’s leadership is strong, clear and organized. The superintendent, particularly in a district such as IPS, interacts with a tremendous number of stakeholders. The students, teachers, parents, administrators and board internal to IPS are responding positively to the superintendent’s goals, including identifying turnaround schools, increasing efficiency in district operations and creating the internal dialogue necessary to achieve results. The external stakeholders, such as city officials, turnaround partners, local businesses and policymakers are excited by the potential of Dr. Ferebee’s leadership on the district’s future. We have a real opportunity to achieve results across all of IPS, and a supportive yet accountability-focused board will drive us to this result much faster.
2. Do you believe the operation of IPS’ central office is efficient?
What is your opinion of the efficiency of IPS’ central office operations? How much money should be spent outside the classroom on high-level district operations?
Spending on district operations should be as low as possible to maximize our allocation of resources to hire top-flight principals and teachers at the school level. IPS can continue to extract considerable efficiencies and savings from district operations. The goal of any board member must be to advocate loudly and strongly for maximizing resources for classroom use. The downfall of any organization is bloat and redundancy in the executive ranks that restrict the ability of local leaders to achieve results. In the case of IPS, some streamlining has already occurred at the district level; however, much more can be done to reduce consulting and project expenditures, sell underused facilities and identify district-wide efficiencies in roles and services.
3. Should the school district partner with charter schools?
Do you support the House Bill 1321 “innovation network?” What is the ideal relationship between the district and a charter school operator?
House Bill 1321 has the potential to be one of the most significant acts coming from the statehouse this decade. As a member of the IPS board, I would strongly support using the tools available in this law.
My preference in applying the law is to give priority to partnering with smart, motivated and talented IPS district members (administrators or teachers) who have a passion to turn around the school in question and the ideas to implement real changes and achieve results. Secondarily, I would look to continue or expand partnerships with organizations already working successfully with IPS.
4. Do you support the state’s voucher program?
If yes, why do you support vouchers? If not, would you propose ending it?
Education is a fundamental right, and a free public education cannot, and should not, be endangered by a voucher program. But too often policymakers and politicians on both sides act as though it is an either/or discussion. I don’t see it that way. When it comes to opportunities for students and families living in Indianapolis, I will strongly advocate for increased opportunities to quality education. If we are not providing that in a neighborhood school, those families must be provided the opportunity to seek out that education elsewhere. When vouchers aid in closing this opportunity gap, we all benefit.
5. The district is moving toward more partnerships with outside groups like The Mind Trust and Stand for Children. Do you support stronger partnerships with school reform organizations?
If not, why not? If yes, what would you envision those partnerships with charter school organizations look like?
I support stronger partnerships with any organization that will help IPS educate and graduate all students that attend a neighborhood school. That includes empowering IPS teachers and administrators who have the ideas and leadership abilities to improve our schools with better training and development. In all cases, we must continue to have oversight of these partners at the IPS board level, which includes both accountability for their results and public transparency as to funding, decision-making and goals.
6. Teachers haven’t received a pay raise in several years. What budget changes, if any, would you support to make this happen?
At a minimum, we must get our teachers and staff back to annual cost of living raises. There are two main ways we can make this happen. In reviewing the 2015 budget (http://www.myips.org/Page/32958), we must ask in every instance “does this improve classroom instruction?” This budget includes over $1.5 million for “contracted services” across twenty separate line items in the central services category alone. In my experience in budgeting, this is where waste is easy to accumulate. Second, many IPS buildings are under-capacity. Smart restructuring here can save hundreds of thousands of dollars and directly pay for additional staff and teachers. The best thing the board can do is ask the right questions, and I have the budgeting experience to do just that.
7. What percentage of a teacher’s performance evaluation score should be based on student test score growth?
Too often the conversation focuses on penalties. I prefer to focus our efforts on incentives. Teachers should be offered bonus compensation for teaching in our highest-need schools. Teachers should be held accountable for student performance and improvement on standardized tests; however, this component should not exceed 50 percent of the overall review and must be properly sequenced with the introduction of new standards. Continuity of the teaching staff must also be a priority in a district like IPS that struggles with high turnover.
8. The state takeover process has been scrutinized recently. What’s your proposal for how to improve schools that have been rated an F for six straight years?
High performing schools have a common set of characteristics: strong leadership from the principal, low turnover of teachers and staff and above-average time spent in the classroom by students. I am open to a number of potential solutions to improve chronically low-performing schools. The most important thing we can do is borrow from program and leadership successes at other IPS schools. I also support extending partnerships with outside organizations with a proven track record of success to aid in turnaround efforts.
9. Ferebee has identified 11 low-performing priority schools to receive extra support and resources. What is your vision for how to improve IPS’ low-performing schools?
First, we must develop a strong and meaningful development program for teachers and future leaders to encourage the right tone and support structure in these schools. Second, we must boldly invest in tutoring so that we can catch students as they begin to fail at a subject. The faster we can catch students, help them get back on track, and support the teacher in the classroom, the quicker we can turn around a school’s performance while keeping it within the IPS system.
10. What is your vision for how schools within the district should be governed? What role should principals and their assistants have in leading schools?
We must continue to decentralize IPS and put more resources and leadership directly in our neighborhood schools. The most consistent predictor of success in a school is a strong principal with the right tone and leadership. As a member of the board, I would advocate for placing more accountability and resources at the school-level rather than the district- level.
11. What didn’t we ask? Tell us about your platform, or another issue you’re passionate about.
The most important thing we can do at IPS is improve the graduation rates so that every child attending an IPS school has an equal opportunity for success. This ends the cycle of poverty and reduces violence and crime in our neighborhoods and, most importantly, ensures that every child in Indianapolis has an opportunity for success and advancement in life. We have a number of great schools within IPS, and we should take those successes and scale them across the district. The core of our district is solid, but we must continue to pursue innovative programs and ideas from both internal and external partners to improve classroom results in under-performing schools. Without exception, every neighborhood school in IPS must provide a high-quality education.