Mayoral charters and innovation schools expand choice
Our urban school systems struggle because so many of their students live in poverty, but they also struggle because they were designed a hundred years ago for an industrial society. In an increasing number of cities, they are being replaced by twenty-first century systems, in which the central administration does not operate every school or employ every teacher. Instead, the board and administration steer the system but contract with others to row—to operate many of the schools. If the schools work, the central administration expands and replicates them. If they don’t, it replaces them. Every year, it replaces the worst performers, replicates the best, and authorizes new models to meet new needs.
The goal is continuous improvement. This new formula—school autonomy, accountability for performance, diversity of school designs, parental choice, and competition between schools—is usually more effective than the centralized, bureaucratic approach we inherited from the twentieth century. Cities that embrace it, such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver, are among our fastest improving.
Indianapolis has recently joined the club. For 15 years, it has had the only mayor in the country who authorizes charter schools, and now Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) is authorizing “innovation network schools:” district schools with performance contracts and full, charter-style autonomy. Some are charters, some are startups, and some are existing IPS schools that have converted. All are not-for-profit organizations with independent boards, operating outside the teachers union contract. But all use IPS school buildings and count toward the district’s performance scores.
Indianapolis deserves close attention from education reformers. Though other cities have their own versions of “innovation schools” or “pilot schools,” only Indianapolis has given them the full autonomy and accountability that charters enjoy. The city’s charters, which outperform IPS’s traditional public schools, now educate more than one third of all public school students in the district, while innovation network schools already educate another 10 percent. Within another year or so, those two sectors combined will surpass 50 percent.
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