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Innovation schools ignite heated debate among school board candidates

Candidates for the Indianapolis Public Schools Board.
Candidates for the Indianapolis Public Schools Board.
Dylan Peers McCoy

Candidates running for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board are sharply divided on one of the most important issues facing the state’s largest district — whether it should collaborate with charter schools.

At a forum hosted by the NAACP and Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis last night, school board candidates largely agreed on some issues, including the need to provide social services to high-poverty students and the importance of paying teachers well.

But the candidates were far apart on the question of innovation schools, which have charter-like flexibilities and are not unionized but are considered part of the district. The role of innovation schools in IPS is contentious, and it is likely to be the defining issue of the school board race.

Innovation schools began in Indianapolis just a few years ago, and the district has embraced them. A new wave of education reformers landed seats on the IPS school board in the 2014 and 2012 elections. The reformers, who generally support charter schools and working with outside operators to improve struggling schools, currently have a solid majority on the board. The current board has converted several schools to innovation status, but the move has drawn the ire of the teachers union and many community members.

READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

Leaders of the NAACP and Concern Clergy, which sponsored last night’s candidates forum, are among the critics of innovation schools. They say that getting more information to voters is key to turning the tide in the district.

“We are awake, and we want to be informed, and we need to make the best decision for our children,” said David Greene, President of Concerned Clergy. “In the past we’ve assumed other people would do it — 2016 is the year for us to do it.”

The groups have held a series of forums this summer and they plan to host two more in the fall, though dates and times have not yet been finalized.

The focus of the forum last night was autonomy, innovation and charter schools, which are pieces of a district strategy designed to shift power from the central office by giving more flexibility and responsibility to principals and relying on outside charter operators to turn around failing schools.

The forum featured seven of the nine candidates in the race, including incumbents Michael O’Connor, Diane Arnold and Sam Odle and challengers Ramon Batts, Larry Vaughn, Jim Grim and Elizabeth Gore.

The discussion of innovation schools focused on Purdue Polytechnic Institute, a planned high school founded by Purdue University that aims to open next fall as an innovation network school in IPS. The school leaders received a fellowship from the Mind Trust, which supports charter and innovation school leaders, in the same week the district announced a three-year plan to close underused high schools.

Current board member Michael O’Connor said that the high school, which has a charter from the mayor’s office, will open in Indianapolis regardless of what the board does. The only question is whether the district will work with the school.

“Where there are people who want to work on innovation and reaching kids and making their future brighter,” O’Connor said, “I will stand to work with and cooperate with them.”

But other candidates were more skeptical.

Ramon Batts, who has a son in the math and science magnet program at Arsenal Technical High School, said there are already opportunities for IPS students to prepare for Purdue, and the district shouldn’t open a new school with new students.

“Why can’t Purdue come in and partner with IPS at the schools that already exist and put their programs in those schools?” he asked. “Why does another whole school have to be created?”

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