Indianapolis Opens ‘Charter Incubator’

Published October 24, 2011

A nonprofit organization and the City of Indianapolis will spend $5 million to nearly double the number of charter schools, currently 23, in the metro area by 2016. The Charter School Incubator will begin granting $1 million each to three to five teams in June 2012 to seed expansion of charter school networks. 

“Indianapolis is becoming the educational capitol of America,” said Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “So we need to bring high-quality charter operators into the marketplace.”

Indianapolis’ mayor is the only one with authority to grant and oversee school charters. Eight of the city’s charter schools have opened since 2008 under Mayor Greg Ballard (R). Ballard is fighting a close election race, and education is one of its hot topics. Ballard’s opponent, Melina Kennedy (D), has focused on early childhood education and said she supports charters, though she suggests restricting them. 

Ballard has made charters a focus of his term and candidacy. Indianapolis’ surrounding Marion County contains 11 school districts, of widely varying quality, and none under mayoral control. Four of the five schools seized by the state this year for consistently abysmal performance are Indianapolis Public Schools. Ballard is preparing to request that the state delegate oversight over these “turnaround schools” to his office. 

Eye for Expansion
Indianapolis charter schools have a waiting list of 2,386 students, more than 100 for each school. Approximately 4 percent of Marion County students attend charters. 
“We’re moving to a place where education reform is possible and welcomed,” said Beth Bray, the mayor’s director of charter schools. “We have a very reform-minded state superintendent and governor, so meaningful impact and change are very possible.”

Contingent on City Council approval, the city will contribute $2 million of the initial incubator funds to its oversight nonprofit, The Mind Trust, with the rest coming from private individuals and foundations. 

“Our deep roots in the community [will] provide a network of support” to grant winners by connecting them with government officials, potential board members, and financial support, said David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust. “We’re able to provide a lot of value to people as opposed to just an investment.”

Attracting Education Entrepreneurs
Charter operators tend to concentrate within particular geographic areas, Harris noted, so the incubator’s goal is to root “the next generation of charter school operators here [in] Indianapolis.” 

That has been a primary Mind Trust goal since the organization’s inception in 2006. Harris was Indianapolis’ first charter schools director under the first mayor to wield charter-granting authority. 

“The conditions under which great schools emerge are the conditions that charter schools create,” Harris said. “You empower talented people to have authority over schools—specifically over staffing, budget, and curriculum—and you hold them to high levels of accountability.” 
Incubator grant winners will spend about two years preparing to open their initial school, while completing their charter application with the mayor’s office.

‘Fundamentally’ Changing System
Ballard’s office has approved 23 percent of the 50 charter applications it has received in the past four years. The mayor assigns an accountability coordinator to every charter, who attends board meetings and visits the schools each month.

“We want to ensure we can screen on the front end as opposed to closing them on the back end,” said Christine Marson, director of the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation.

The most recent scores on Indiana’s achievement test, from 2009, show Indianapolis charter students achieving above-average academic growth. The longer students were enrolled in a charter, the better their pass rates, with 81 percent of students passing if enrolled for four or more years. 

More than half of all Indianapolis students are African-American. The average IPS student scores worse on math and reading than 70 percent of the state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. IPS’s four-year graduation rate is 58 percent. A recent study of California charters discovered they were more successful than any state district at closing the minority achievement gap. 

“Our goal is to create such a concentration of high-quality talent and high-quality schools that the system fundamentally changes,” Harris said.