Friday, January 2, 2015

Indiana: Building a Better Leech

Twice today, this has turned up in my twitter feed:

Indeed, this links to website that offers a $5K bounty for "excellent candidates for school leaders."  I don't know. Maybe this is better than when "Dr." Ted J. Morris recruited charter school board members on LinkedIn or when the NYC Teaching Collective went looking for any warm body to pretend-teach by putting an ad on Craigslist. But given the Mind Trust's history, probably not.

If you haven't been paying attention to Indiana, buckle up campers (I mean, specifically, buckle up your nose). I'm going to try to render a quick and dirty picture of the history here. If you'd like the Full Monty, I recommend Hoosier School Heist from Doug Martin, a fully-researched picture of the whole mess.

Indiana education is an unholy mess, a gold mine that reformsters have helped themselves to at length. Jeb Bush used it as an expansion ground for his reformy ideas and Charter Schools USA (currently being considered to take over the entire York PA school system) was one of the early beneficiaries.

But the Mind Trust represents some of the finest home-grown gravy train engineering. The Mind Trust (and by the way, who came up with that name, because it sounds like a cross between "brain trust" and "mind f@#!" and neither is good idea) was founded in 2006 by former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson (Dem) and his charter school director, David Harris.  Peterson was mayor in 2001, when Indiana passed legislation giving the mayor of Indianapolis power to singlehandedly authorize charter schools. So, basically, the best and most legally-authorized patronage system ever.

In Summer of 2007, the charter-loving Hoover Institute had this to say about the new organization:

In January, David Harris left the mayor’s office to work on another side of the charter school problem: ‘stimulating supply,’ as he puts it. If Indianapolis is going to continue being a leader in school innovation, it must, Harris reasons, become the place to develop new ideas. So he has built a nonprofit—IPS superintendent White, among others, sits on the board—to fund highly paid fellowships for education entrepreneurs. It is called [The] Mind Trust, and along with trying to find the next Michael Feinberg (a co-founder of KIPP) or the next Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach For America), Harris will be trying to draw the cream of education reform organizations to establish a presence in Indianapolis.

And nothing says "cream of education reform" like twitter job solicitations. But in 2007 that was far in Mind Trust's future. Closer in the future was voters denying Peterson a third term in office.

This did not slow down the Mind Trust. They simply gathered money and friends. Peterson was hired by Eli Lilly and Company, and they proceeded to become huge boosters of Mind Trust's work. In turn, Mind Trust used that money to turn Indianapolis into a blooming oasis for reformsters. How about $3.4 million for TFA? Done, and the parade of reformy groups continued. In 2012 Mind Trust presented another meeting of the minds to hear prominent voucher booster Howard Fuller speak, sponsored by reformsters like Stand for Children and Education Reform Now.

This came in the wake of their magnum opus, "Creating Opportunity Schools, dumped on the public in December, 2011. The report is roughly 155 pages long. You know I love you, but this is one time I am not going to read the original so that you don't have to. The Mind Trust did produce this nifty 1:33 video.

Incidentally, before you watch this, prepare to have your heart broken-- the narrator is Mind Trust board member Jane Pauley.

The basic pitch is a now-familiar one: "Many students are not learning things at all! Don't you wish they could all have a pony? We totally promise to do that."

NUVO (Indiana's alternative voice) attempted to delve a little deeper into Mind Trust and the report in the summer of 2013. I am going to crib from their work.

The report first asserts that Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) are tragically and completely broken. Soooo... let's cut $188 million worth of central office functions and use it to fund "opportunity schools" which will operate in their own rules-free universe, where school leaders can work like CEO's and hire, fire, pay, and if that sounds like the reformster template for charterization, that's because we ought to channel a bunch of that $188 million toward charters, too.

NUVO writers found that much of the language of the report looked a lot like the language used by Public Impact, the North Carolina education policy and management consulting firm that Mind Trust hired. Bottom line, as one panelist in NUVO article observed, the whole proposal "was a way of establishing a beachhead for people to come in and make a lot of money."

Harris told NUVO that "evidence suggests" that schools under mayoral control perform better; he also suggested that one mayor who must be re-elected based on a variety of issues is more accountable than a large assortment of individuals in each of the school communities who are elected based strictly on their educational performance. Okay, I may have reworded his argument a hair, but his way didn't capture how stupid a justification he offered for dis-enfranchising whole neighborhoods of voters.

Harris, who is apparently either a con artist or a dope, also observed "when you go to schools that have excellent test scores, they're not teaching to the test." Oh, and also this:  "When people say we're trying to privatize education, I really don't understand that. They are all public schools. We're just saying other people can be involved than just the people in the central office."

In 2014, Indiana's legislature legislated itself a new brand of school, named Innovation Network Schools, and my quick read is that Mind Trust's Opportunity Schools idea is now law. More specifically, it is open season on education dollars in Indianapolis. The law appears to open schools up to privatization without having to use the word "charter" even as charter operators are just as free to jump on the pile of cash as anybody else.

In the promo video on the Mind Trust page, Peterson says that these schools combine the best of public charter schools and traditional schools, and then he explains-- the resources and buildings of the public system with the autonomy over staffing, curriculum and budget of a charter school. So, charter schools with a twist-- instead of trying to hide the way the charter leech sucks the blood from public schools, this puts the leeching out front and sells it as a plus.

The Mind Trust seems to be the Godfather of charter/privatized schooling in Indianapolis; under "What We Do" their website has two subheadings-- "launching great schools," and "creating a landscape for success" (which includes the "charter school incubator"). They arranged some start-up grants for charters, and last summer picked some fellows to run some turnaround schools for them (including a former senior intelligence analyst who'd like to start an entrepreneur school). But apparently, somehow, they haven't turned up enough super-duper charterish operators yet. Hence, today's tweet.

What do you get as a new charter operator innovation school fellow? Two years to design and launch your own school. Plus access to national experts (I'd love to see that list), staff support, travel, a generous salary, and more! Plus, Peterson brags, Indianapolis is loaded with TFA and TNTP folks who make a "rich ecosystem of education organizations" and the graphic shows Teach Plus, KIPP, College Summit, Diploma Plus and many more in the ecosystem because this is just an orgy of profiteering.

Lord, I know this is running long, but seriously-- why solicitations on twitter? I suppose it's possible their just looking for a beard-- the support network and staffing help etc are all the people who will really run the school while Mr. McStarsearch draws his generous salary and sips latte in the office. Maybe Mind Trust is offering a new sort of service to the other ecosystem members-- we will set up a school for you to suck the blood from, and if anything goes south, we will also provide a fall guy to be the nominal boss of the whole mess. Maybe Mind Trust is so clueless that they believe that not only can anyone be a teacher with five weeks of training, but anyone can be a charter school CEO with a pile of money.

Look, there are people out there who know Indiana's tortured ed reform history far better than I, and they deserve to have the rest of us pay better attention, because Indiana's messes (aka Jeb Bush and Tony Bennett et al) tend to spread. But after scanning all this history and looking at this newest wrinkle, there's one thing I'm certain of-- whatever the goal is here, it's not about actually educating the children of Indianapolis.


  1. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is a standardized computer adaptive test (CAT), required as part of the application process to many MBA programs around the world.

  2. Thank you, Peter, for shining the spotlight on our misery. And, please note, if you smell something foul in Indiana, it's source is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council):