As Politics Change, the Lilly Endowment Funds Design of New Schools in Indianapolis

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill is purported to have once said (you never know these days). The Lilly Endowment, Indiana’s premier education philanthropy, seems to be taking his advice pretty seriously.

Just two years ago, The Mind Trust, a major education reform group based in Indianapolis and funded by Lilly, pushed for the mayor of that city to be given greater control of the school system. The mayor rejected the idea and The Mind Trust was rebuked by the then-superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS).

Just two years later, the makeup of IPS Board has changed dramatically. They fired the old superintendent, hired a new, more friendly superintendent, and pushed a bill through the state legislature to give the district greater freedom to reconstitute schools and contract with charter organizations to operate schools within the district. What a different two years can make.

Now with the political deck cleared, the Lilly Endowment has just given The Mind Trust $1.5 million to fund their Innovation School Fellowship. The fellows in question will spend a year designing and launching a series of innovative schools to be launched the following school year. All told, The Mind Trust will use the Lilly gift to fund nine fellowships over three years. Some of the early schools will include a Montessori school, a blended learning campus, and a school focused on entrepreneurship run by, curiously, a former State Department intelligence analyst who focused on terrorist groups.

The Lilly Endowment is not alone in its support for The Mind Trust. The organization counts heavy hitters like Broad, Gates, Joyce, Lumina, Noyes and Walton as some of its backers. These funders have supported the organization’s more recent school design efforts along with their charter incubation and education entrepreneur fellowships.

It should be noted that The Mind Trust has received some fierce criticism of its “New Orleans-style approach” to school reform with various researchers and veteran educators decrying an approach (charters, vouchers, deregulation, oh my!) that they say has not led to success in The Big Easy.

As The Lilly Endowment strives to unravel why its home state is among the lowest in educational performance, it is hoping that similar reforms will fare better in its own backyard.