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IPS' safe -- and smart -- pick

If you followed the debate over Indiana superintendent qualifications in the last legislative session, you might be surprised that a Nobel-winning scientist, a surgeon, retired military general or the former governor weren't among the candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent. The so-called reform crowd insisted candidates with those credentials should be able to run an Indiana school district.

Let's forget for a moment that Nobel-winning scientists and surgeons don't have the skill sets necessary to run a public school district.

What the reformers really want is for one of the state's biggest districts to be operated by someone intent on privatizing schools, all the way to the classroom. Licensed superintendents spent time as classroom teachers and know that privatization is not the answer to improving Indiana schools.

So it must have been terribly disappointing to Democrats for Education Reform and the dozens of conservative-backed reform groups to see IPS hire a traditional public school educator as superintendent.

"In many larger school districts with budgets exceeding $100 million, and hundreds of employees, the superintendent and most top administrators are charged with operating what amounts to be a medium-sized business. Even a medical doctor or a Nobel prize-winning scientist would not have been eligible for the job of superintendent," argued DFER's Larry Grau in a recent news release. "In this light, emphasizing only education qualifications can actually be detrimental to schools in the districts. We cannot figure out what could possibly be wrong with allowing school boards to at least be able to consider people with broader sets of qualifications."

IPS played it safe and hired someone with the proper qualifications. There's much more to running a major school district than handling a budget.

The new IPS chief, Lewis Ferebee, has already taken a jab at the A-F grading scale that is a cornerstone of the reformers' efforts to paint traditional public schools as failing.

The Indianapolis Star reported: "(Ferebee) said he was not a fan of state accountability systems like Indiana's A to F school grading scheme, saying he would seek to "turn that scoreboard off" and focus the district on meeting its own measures for success.

Ferebee's outsider status might be just what Indiana needs in terms of calling out the untested, unproven approaches the corporate-backed reformers are pushing. The voices of experienced, successful Indiana educators have mostly been missing.

Ferebee's appointment, along with news that a Connecticut judge has ordered Paul Vallas be removed from his superintendent post, are more signs that the reform tide is receding. Vallas is a darling of the reform crowd, but his tenure in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia certainly produced no turnaround miracles.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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