Published Online: November 8, 2007
Published in Print: November 14, 2007, as Indianapolis Mayor, Supporter of Charters, Loses Race

Indianapolis Mayor, Supporter of Charters, Loses Race

Charter backers, foes wait to see successor’s level of commitment.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson—a major supporter of charter schools and the only mayor in the country who can authorize them—will be handing over the reins of the city and its 16 charter schools to a Republican political neophyte after suffering a stunning election-night defeat last week.

While school districts often get new superintendents or school board members, charter school advocates say this transition in mayors will be more significant, because the future of the nontraditional, largely autonomous, publicly funded schools that serve more than 4,000 Indianapolis students is at stake.

Nationally, charter school advocates and opponents are eager to see how Mayor-elect Greg Ballard handles the transition and approaches the job’s educational responsibilities—something that’s been an issue in other states that have considered allowing elected politicians to authorize charter schools.

The closest another state has come to allowing a mayor to authorize such schools is in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee City Council can charter a school. Typically, states assign such power to a local or state board of education or a university.

“It’s going to put to the test one of the concerns that some folks have,” said Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst for the Washington- based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “If you allow mayors to be authorizers, what’s going to happen when someone else comes in?”

Mr. Ballard, who has told Indianapolis media outlets that he supports charter schools, will have some immediate decisions to make when he takes office in January. At least three of the 16 mayor-sponsored charter schools will be up for reauthorization in 2008, and that decision will be handled by Mr. Ballard’s administration.

Moreover, the mayor is allowed, by the charter school law passed in 2001, to create five new charter schools a year, so Mr. Ballard would have to decide if any new ones will open under his watch.

Mayor Peterson, a Democrat who was first elected in 1999 and was seeking his third term, is a major proponent of charter schools and developed a rigorous review and quality-monitoring process that far exceeded requirements in state law. He required quarterly financial reporting, site visits, and accountability plans that must be met, among other provisions.

National Recognition

“The model is there,” said Kevin Teasley, the president of the Indianapolis- based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which operates two charter schools sponsored by the mayor in Indianapolis. “The question is, will Ballard follow it? The meaning of quality can have a very different meaning to someone else.”

Mr. Ballard is a self-employed management consultant who retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines in 2001. His campaign did not return a call seeking comment late last week.

David E. Harris, who was Mayor Peterson’s first charter schools director, said the new administration will face the immediate challenges of getting to know the 16 charter school operators and the schools’ strengths and weaknesses.

Mr. Harris said the success of Indianapolis’ charter schools initiative, and the mayor’s role as authorizer, will continue to hinge on how well the mayor knows the community, his ability to ensure the chartering process and accountability provisions are transparent, and a demand for high academic standards.

“I think the systems and the processes and the standards that Mayor Peterson has established are so good, so clear, and so clearly designed to extend beyond his tenure,” said Mr. Harris, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis- based Mind Trust, which seeks to promote educational entrepreneurship in the city. “Indianapolis charter schools will be fine, and will continue to thrive. And that’s the mark of any good initiative.”

Mayor Peterson’s loss—considered by Indiana political and media experts to be the biggest upset in recent Hoosier political history—primarily had to do with rising crime and property taxes.

Nationally, Mayor Peterson was considered a trailblazer, gaining the authority to authorize charter schools in 2001 and methodically developing the system for reviewing, approving, and holding them accountable. The program was honored in 2006 with the prestigious Innovations in American Government award from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“The city is turning into a hub for educational innovation,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector, which supports charter schools. “Hopefully, that won’t fall by the wayside.”

PHOTO: With his family on stage with him, Republican Greg Ballard celebrates his victory over Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis at an election-night party. He has said he supports charter schools, but the election turned on issues of rising crime and property taxes, not education.
—Charlie Nye/The Indianapolis Star/AP

Vol. 27, Issue 12, Page 8

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