Charter Law Puts Indianapolis Mayor in Driver’s Seat

Published March 1, 2003

Imagine a city where the mayor has the power to start new public schools. Imagine a mayor who can encourage private-sector participation in solving today’s education woes. Difficult to imagine? Yes … but in Indianapolis, that’s the reality.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is finishing his first term as mayor of the city known around the world for its annual 500-mile motor race. Democrat Peterson’s 1999 campaign included a strong pitch for charter schools. After he won the election, he quickly assembled a staff and lobbying effort to make sure the charter school legislation that passed included a provision authorizing mayors to approve charters.

After a seven-year battle, led primarily by State Senator Teresa S. Lubbers (R-Indianapolis), legislators finally approved a charter school law for Indiana two years ago. The Center for Education Reform ranks the law one of the strongest in the country. But without Peterson’s efforts, in public and behind closed doors, to achieve broad support for the proposal, it’s unlikely the bill would have been approved by Indiana’s Democrat-controlled House and signed by Democrat Governor Frank O’Bannon.

“In the past we did not have strong bipartisan support,” noted Lubbers.

Mayor in Control

The new charter school law gave the mayor of Indianapolis unique authority: Peterson became the only mayor in the country with the ability to authorize charter schools. Although a 1998 law gave fellow Democrat Mayor John Norquist authority to approve charters issued by the City of Milwaukee, applications for his approval must first come as recommendations from a seven-member Charter School Review created by city ordinance.

Although Peterson has a similar seven-member Charter Schools Board, he created the board himself, via executive order, shortly after the Hoosier bill was signed into law. The Indianapolis board’s function is to advise the mayor on which charter school applications he should approve, and to assist him in holding resulting schools accountable. The board has bipartisan membership.

The mayor’s staff provides clear direction to charter applicants. Applicants meet with the mayor’s staff for non-binding information exchanges so the mayor can gain as much insight as possible into the intentions and goals of potential school operators–insight that might not come across fairly or clearly in the highly structured setting of a public hearing.

After an application is approved, Peterson’s staff provides ongoing support to the new school’s staff to ensure all appropriate laws are complied with and all appropriate forms are completed and filed. While this could be viewed as too much oversight, some new charter school providers–including the present writer–welcome such assistance.

Since charter schools were an integral part of Peterson’s winning mayoral campaign, he obviously wants charter schools to succeed and is willing to help them in many ways. But that willingness doesn’t include approving schools that are on shaky ground. Although the mayor is authorized to charter as many as five schools per year, he hasn’t approved the maximum during the first two years of his authority, despite large applicant pools. Out of the first year’s 21 applicants, he approved four–including two backed by well-known Republicans. In his second year, he approved just three.

Model for Other States

The Indianapolis charter law has already served as a model for other states, and it is likely to continue to play that role. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came within two votes of being accorded similar chartering authority during an extraordinary end-of-year session of the Michigan Senate on December 30. A bill to lift the Wolverine State’s charter school cap had been approved by the state House on December 13, when legislators adjourned for the year. Departing Governor John Engler urged a special session to allow the Senate to vote on the bill.

The charter bill contained a bipartisan provision developed by Republican Engler and Democrat Kilpatrick. It would have allowed five new charter schools each year for three years in Detroit, with Kilpatrick controlling the chartering authority. Kilpatrick also would have taken control of the city’s reform school board. Although the Republican-controlled Senate voted 18-12 to approve the bill, the measure fell short of the 20 votes necessary for final adoption.

Kevin Teasley is president of the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation and CEO of the 21st Century Charter School. His email address is [email protected].