Op-Ed: In Search for Chancellor, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

McKinley Tech in Eckington.

As the Council of the District of Columbia weighs Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s choice for D.C. Public Schools chancellor, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, I urge leaders and parents to not lose sight of what makes public education truly public: the twin promises of equity and democratic accountability.

I am a former board member with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), where Dr. Ferebee served as superintendent for five years before leaving for D.C.

I ran for a seat on our school board in 2012 for the right reasons: I am a graduate of IPS, a former IPS teacher, and a current IPS parent.

That year’s elections were pivotal in our district. Before then, school board candidates had regularly run their campaigns with a budget of about $2,000. But beginning that year, the races were inundated with outside cash from national, state, and local organizations. I was approached by a range of contributors who gave $78,000 towards my candidacy. In the beginning I bought what they sold but I quickly saw through their scheme.

The IPS board hired Dr. Ferebee in the summer of 2013. He seemed to be a true advocate of public education, judging by his 2009 dissertation finding that school choice was ineffective and his previous public school work history in North Carolina. However, it wasn’t long before the IPS board was introduced to the term “portfolio model” — a transformation proposal brought to us by Lewis Ferebee and his newfound Indianapolis corporate backers.

The idea sounds innocuous enough: Provide parents with a range of options for their child’s education — a “portfolio” of choices for families and students. It called for dramatically down-sizing our central administration with the promise of pumping more money into individual schools.

We were told that this model would help unify our diverse “holdings” including traditional, neighborhood schools, charter schools, and virtual and voucher schools. We were promised market-style accountability: On Wall Street, if a stock in a wider portfolio is performing poorly, it is sold. Similarly, the Superintendent assured us, if a school wasn’t meeting standards, it would be sold, closed, or transferred to a different operator.

While the language seemed simple enough, albeit rather corporate, the impact of our Wall Street-inspired reform has been devastating for many families and students.

Under Dr. Ferebee’s leadership, we created “Innovation Network Schools” — partnerships between IPS and charter schools. But it turned out that Innovation Network Schools aren’t really partnerships at all. In fact, they’re an underhanded way of turning over public resources and assets to private hands.

Suddenly, IPS was providing rent-free buildings, free food service, transportation, and tax dollars to privately operated charter schools. In Indianapolis, Innovation Network Schools are technically overseen by the district, but are managed with little transparency, sometimes egregious CEO salaries (a concern that has been lifted in D.C. recently), and often unproven academic track records.

It’s no surprise that billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a fan of portfolio systems, having once said about the Indianapolis model, “This type of proposal gives everyone in the community a greater say — and greater responsibility — in the education of their children.”

But actual public input or responsibility were elusive. In fact, we quickly lost public accountability over the schools. Our neighborhood schools began to be shuttered. Three of the city’s historic, mostly-black high schools were closed at the end of last year, and several elementary schools are slated to be closed in coming years. Meanwhile, management of twenty other IPS schools has been turned over to private companies and more such arrangements are on the way, under the banner of the Innovation Network Schools.

From my front-row seat I learned that a portfolio system throws equity to the wind. Charter and voucher schools can exclude or push out children based on religion, special needs, sexual orientation, behavior challenges, or even academic performance. The “best” public schools with the highest demand are located in gentrified areas of Indianapolis and are disproportionately attended by wealthy white students. Our district is re-segregating along racial and economic lines, and there are vast disparities in programming between schools.

The D.C. Council should thoroughly question Dr. Ferebee’s definition of public education.

A portfolio model doesn’t promise equity, or even quality — only “choice.” But the choices keep changing, with schools appearing and disappearing. What parent would choose a school system for their child that is predicated on the promise of constant churn?

The D.C. Council should thoroughly question Dr. Ferebee’s definition of public education. The District appears to already be headed towards a portfolio model, with about half of students now in privately operated charter schools and over 1,600 students enrolled in private schools through the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. DC’s new five star performance system, unveiled in December, is eerily similar to the oversimplification and competition at the heart of the Wall Street-inspired makeover of IPS.

Here in Indianapolis, many families are wondering what happened to our system of education. While there have always been challenges, what we’ve seen in the last two decades is the gradual starving of our public schools. The total amount of money IPS gets from the state — the bulk of the district’s funding — has been cut in the past five years by around 10 percent.

Starvation causes a downward spiral of poor outcomes, families fleeing to alternatives, and high turnover. It creates a window of opportunity for new charter and voucher schools and the proliferation of innovation network schools.

Here in Indianapolis, we can now realistically imagine the actual demise of our public school system itself. Yes, billions of our taxpayer dollars will still be spent on education, but much of it will disappear into the hands of well-compensated CEOs inside privately managed, corporate schools.

Sadly, the values of a public education — the promise of equity and equal access, opportunity, and local control — may soon be a thing of the past in my city.

Our story need not be the story of Washington, D.C.

Gayle Cosby is a former IPS board member (2012–2016) and a current doctoral student in Urban Education Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. She blogs about the Indianapolis education scene at gaylecosby.wordpress.com.

grhynear@iupui.edu