Innovation in Indianapolis

In spite of the contentious debate over charter schools in Columbus, there are emerging opportunities for cities in the Buckeye State to pursue and implement innovative strategies and practices made available by the charter option (see above).

One such innovative practice involves mayors assuming control of schools and school districts from traditional school boards. In Cincinnati, there is talk (how serious remains to be seen) about empowering Mayor Mark Mallory to take over the operations of the Cincinnati Public Schools, by replacing its elected board with mayoral appointees (see here). Precedence for such takeovers exists in cities like Chicago, New York City, and Washington, DC. Yet before wading in too deep, interested mayors (or mayoral aspirants) should look seriously at Indianapolis for ideas on how a mayor can use his or her office to improve education.

In 2001, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson birthed that city’s charter school program by persuading legislators to let him function as its sponsor (the organization that “licenses” charter schools to operate and ultimately holds them responsible for results). Since then, the mayor’s charter portfolio has grown to 16 schools serving 4,000 students, and these schools have put serious pressure on the Indianapolis Public Schools to improve their performance. Mayor Peterson’s schools are good schools, too. Indeed, Indianapolis charters have seen their students’ passage rates on state achievement tests outpace the statewide average. Several of them, such as KIPP Indianapolis College Prep, can boast dramatic gains. And 87 percent of parents with children in Indianapolis charter schools report overall satisfaction with them.

David Harris, the architect of Mayor Peterson’s charter program, points to four key factors in this tale of success, all of which represent unflagging dedication to fostering and maintaining innovative, high quality schools.

  1.  A high bar for entry by would-be school operators and board members alike. The mayor’s office rejects roughly seven out of every eight charter proposals it receives, and qualified applicants must persuasively complete a 68-page application, a daunting checklist of requirements, and personal interviews with charter school experts.
  2. Local ownership and oversight. The mayor’s office only issues charters to pre-screened and well-constructed boards of trustees. This doesn’t prevent school governing boards from “outsourcing” the day-to-day operations to national groups (non-profit and for-profit alike), but the mayor’s contracts are with the local boards, upstanding citizens who are ultimately responsible for the performance of their schools. In turn, the mayor’s office is a local overseer of schools with an obvious stake (“skin in the game,” so to speak) in their success and in the health of the communities they serve.
  3. Well-publicized, high-stakes accountability for the sponsor. Because the mayor is directly accountable for his actions, accountable both to the state and to the residents (and voters) of his city, any problem with a charter school is a problem for him. This reciprocal relationship has resulted in transparent operating policies and rigorous oversight of the city’s charters—including closure of one poor performer. To prevent any fiscal temptation for keeping failing schools open, Indianapolis charters (unlike Ohio’s) do not pay sponsorship fees to the mayor’s office.
  4. Understanding charter schools’ role in broader community renewal plans. The mayor’s office utilizes charter schools, and the expanded educational options that they offer, as part of a larger strategy for fostering economic development, strengthening communities, and growing talent and innovation in his domain. Indianapolis' steady economic and population growth suggests that Peterson’s strategy, of which charters are but a small part, is working.

Civic leaders seeking to expand quality schooling options--or turn around low-performing districts using aspects of the charter model--would do well to consider these and other lessons in quality chartering. As Governor Strickland himself has noted, Ohio can learn from successful charter efforts in other states. Indianapolis’ highly-regarded charter program is case in point.

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