Darcie Cimarusti writes in Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet about the calculated devastation done to Indiana’s once-great public schools by privatizers, chief among them Mike Pence, former governor Mitch Daniels, David Harris of the Mind Trust, and Stand for Children (which long ago abandoned its credentials as a progressive organization).

Darcie is a school board member in New Jersey, an education blogger, parent, and part-time staff at the Network for Public Education, where her work has been invaluable.

The Indianapolis story is especially sad, because the privatization movement was bipartisan. Democrats joined in the plunder with Republicans. Please bear in mind that David Harris of Mind Trust claims to be a Democrat, even though he has paved the way for privatization and continues to do so, and Bart Peterson was the Democratic mayor of Indianapolis. Both of them might just as well be on the staff of Betsy DeVos.

Here is an excerpt from this excellent post:

In 2001, charter school legislation was passed in Indiana, and thanks to [David] Harris’s lobbying, [Bart] Peterson was made the first mayor in the nation with the authority to authorize charters. Harris was named the state’s charter schools chief, reviewing applications and making recommendations to Mayor Peterson. By 2002, the state’s first three charter schools opened.

While still employed by the city of Indianapolis, Harris came up with a plan to “create a venture capital fund to greenlight new school-reform nonprofits,” and in 2006, the Mind Trust was born. The Indianapolis Star editorial board praised Harris’s plan, writing, “The Mind Trust has done this city a tremendous favor with today’s release of its dramatic plan to overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools.”

With millions of dollars from local foundations, specifically the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and the Lilly Endowment, the Mind Trust enticed national reform entities to Indianapolis, including Teach For America, the New Teacher Project and Stand for Children.

With the arrival of Oregon-based Stand For Children, Indianapolis school board elections started to take on a decidedly different tenor. Until 2010, a few thousand dollars was all that was needed to win a seat. That all changed when Stand For Children, an education reform 501(c)(4), started pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the 2012 elections. Stand’s tax return that year reported that the election of three Indianapolis school board members was a top accomplishment for the organization.

In 2013, reform-minded Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was appointed, and Stand for Children endorsed and financially supported additional candidates in 2014 and 2016, ensuring a pro-reform board majority to support Ferebee and the Mind Trust’s agenda.

Stand for Children also spent $473,172 lobbying Indiana lawmakers on Public Law 1321, which was passed in 2014. Public Law 1321 was based on a 2013 model policy drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch-funded member organization of corporate lobbyists and conservative state legislators who craft “model legislation” on issues important to them and then help shepherd it through legislatures. Public Law 1321 allows Indianapolis and other districts across the state to create Innovation Network Schools — schools that are overseen by the school district but managed by private operators. These include privately operated charter schools that gain instant access to existing public buildings and resources.

IPS opened the first Innovation Network school in 2015. Fast-forward to 2018, and the district website lists 20 Innovation Schools in total. The Mind Trust has “incubated” and helped IPS open many of those Innovation Schools, including Daniels’s Purdue Polytechnic High School, with seven more schools in the pipeline.

While the Mind Trust and Stand for Children would have Indianapolis residents believe these reforms are community-driven, in essence, the influence they wield over IPS and the school board is not dissimilar to what happens when a state takes over a school district. The Mind Trust and its web of connections in the statehouse, the mayor’s office, the Chamber of Commerce and countless other high-level organizations, institutions and foundations, both around the city and nationally, determine much of what happens in IPS.

But the longer the Mind Trust operates in the city, the clearer it becomes that these forces are focused on turning IPS schools over to private operators, and often the operators selected by the Mind Trust fail to demonstrate levels of student success higher than the schools they are tapped to replace.

For example, the Mind Trust recruited Matchbook Learning and named it a 2017 Innovation School Fellow, awarding founder Sajan George $400,000 to develop a turnaround school plan for IPS.

George, a favorite son of the national reform crowd, also received start-up funds from The NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation Next Generation Learning Challenges. He was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the school choice juggernaut founded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when AFC’s conference was held in Indianapolis last year.

Matchbook Learning calls itself a “national nonprofit charter school turnaround management organization,” but in 2017 it operated only two schools — Merit Prep in Newark, New Jersey and Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit, Michigan. Both of Matchbook’s schools were hybrid charters, where students learn in a brick-and-mortar building but receive the majority of their instruction virtually. Both were closed by the end of the 2016-17 school year for lack of growth and poor performance.

Hybrids such as Matchbook have performed no better in the state of Indiana. An Indiana State Board of Education evaluation of performance data from the 2016 and 2017 school years concluded that “students in virtual and hybrid charter schools do not perform as well as those in brick-and-mortar charter schools.” In 2017 there were five hybrid charters in the state, and according to the state’s own grading system, two hybrid schools received D’s, and the other 3 received F’s.

Matchbook Learning, thanks to the support of the Mind Trust, was granted a charter by the Indianapolis Charter School Board, and selected by the IPS board to “restart” Wendell Phillips School 63.

At School 63, 85 percent of students were black or Hispanic, and 76 percent of students qualified for the federal free-lunch program for children from low-income families. The school was identified as “underperforming” after five years of F’s using the same grading system that gave hybrid charter schools such as Matchbook D and F grades as well.

Despite Matchbook’s history of failure in two different states, and the abysmal performance of hybrid charters across Indiana, only one board member voted against Matchbook’s takeover of School 63 — Elizabeth Gore. Gore, elected to the board in 2016, is the only currently seated board member elected without the financial support of Stand for Children.

“I refuse to turn over the school to a company that obviously has problems to an academic program that I feel has no accountability, a record or sustainability for improving children’s academic growth,” Gore said.

The 2018 election looks like it is shaping up to potentially derail the vision of Indianapolis as a national model for the reform movement. With three of seven seats up for election, and Elizabeth Gore demonstrating she’s not afraid to vote against the Stand for Children-beholden board majority, the balance of power on the board could easily shift.