More Mayors Need Chartering Authority

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Sept. 7 and thereafter
740 words

(Note to editors: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part looks at the Ball State charter school experience).INDIANAPOLIS – When the Indiana General Assembly passed a charter school law in 2001, it carved out a unique responsibility for one man: Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. With a stroke of the governor’s pen, Peterson became the only mayor in the state — the only mayor in the nation — with unilateral power to start a charter school.

Three years into the experiment, it appears the power was granted wisely. Peterson has authorized 11 charter schools, more than any other chartering authority in Indiana. His office has implemented accountability standards for those schools and regular reporting of results to the public. And, with one exception, the schools are showing progress, according to a just-released report.

So why aren’t Peterson’s counterparts across the state clamoring for what he’s got?

It’s a complicated question that elicits ambivalence from the mayors themselves.

Some are waiting for more data from the Indianapolis experience. Some lead cities where test scores and student achievement don’t make headlines. Some are unfamiliar with charter schools or why a mayor might want to start one.

In Lafayette, Mayor Tony Roswarski sees no need. "We’re very fortunate in this area," he says, referring to the Lafayette, West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County school systems. "You can’t send your kid to a bad school here."

That was not the case in Indianapolis in the mid 1990s when the legislature first debated charters during an era of embarrassing test scores and public cries for reform. As a candidate, Democrat Peterson testified in favor of charters, which are financed by taxpayers but enjoy more autonomy and fewer regulations than typical public schools.

After seven attempts, the legislature passed a law in 2001 giving charter authority to existing school districts, public universities that offered four-year degrees and the mayor of consolidated cities, meaning Indianapolis. By then, Peterson was in office and ready to "run with it," as state Sen. Teresa Lubbers recalls.

Three Peterson-sponsored schools opened in the 2002-03 school year, two in 2003-04 and five this year. Another is scheduled to open in 2005-06. They account for 44 percent of all charters in Indiana.

An August report evaluated the five schools open for one year or longer and issued a mostly favorable grade:

– For the schools that completed their second year of operation, the percentage of students passing ISTEP rose in every category.

– Even though many students entered the charter schools behind their peers at Indianapolis Public Schools, the majority made gains at a rate sufficient for them to become proficient by 8th grade.

– Eighty-eight percent of parents were pleased with their charter school and 86 percent of teachers reported satisfaction with the schools" academic standards and expectations.

Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, who sponsored the charter law, says she’s open to giving more mayors Peterson’s power. Any legislation, she says, "would have to spring up from grass-roots support."

Some mayors say they don’t need the power because other chartering authorities are doing the job.

That’s the case in Fort Wayne where Mayor Graham Richard sees a more appropriate role for him in after-school programming. When it comes to charters, he has deferred to Ball State, the only university to use its statutory chartering authority. Ball State has established a charter school in Fort Wayne after a process Richard called "professional and non-political." (The Muncie university is right behind Peterson in the number of charters it has sponsored).

Ditto for Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who supported charter school legislation in his former capacity as a member of the House of Representatives.

In Evansville, the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. has granted two charters: one for a primary school and the other for a high school.

The University of Southern Indiana, which has charter authority, has declined to exercise it, despite having a teacher education department.

Despite initial signs of success in Indianapolis and elsewhere, the charter school movement is not growing in Indiana the way it has in other states. Arizona has 495 charter schools, Ohio 142 and Florida 258. An explicit hope of charter school advocates is that enough will be created to stimulate competition, lifting the quality of all schools.

Indiana’s admittedly limited data suggest that mayors — once given the authority — will be more aggressive in opening charter schools than existing school systems and public universities.

In other words, if Indiana wants more charter schools, it will have to empower more mayors to create them.

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