Education

Schoolmaker

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson can charter a new school anytime he wants. That gives him lots of power--and lots of headaches as well.
by | December 2005
 

It didn't take long for signs of trouble to appear at the Flanner House charter school in Indianapolis. Within a few months of the school's opening in 2003, more than 85 percent of its students were skipping mandatory assessment tests. Even for a school designed to serve high school drop-outs, that was a poor showing. What was worse, the students who did take the tests seemed to know less at the end of the school year than they had at the beginning. Only two of the first 16 graduates had met state requirements for a diploma. Nor could Flanner House account for all of the students it claimed to have enrolled, which called into question more than $600,000 in state funds.

The parents didn't seem particularly worried about these issues. Many of them were single mothers, pleased just to have a special charter school dedicated to serving their troubled kids. A survey in 2004 found 90 percent of the parents were "satisfied" with what Flanner House was doing.

But the one person in Indianapolis who counted most was not satisfied. Mayor Bart Peterson--who had launched Flanner House in the first place--took a look at the disturbing numbers and promptly shut it down. "You can never look at the failure of a school as a success," Peterson said. "But this sends a clear-cut message that charter schools are different... Traditional schools don't get shut down for nonperformance."

In most of the country, even charter schools don't get shut down very often. But under a law enacted in Indianapolis in 2001--the only one of its kind in the country--the mayor can create a school or abolish it essentially by signing a piece of paper. The city council can vote to block him, but it has never done that.

Peterson has used his powers to try and reshape education in the poorest parts of his city. Instead of jawboning elected school board officials, he's created what is in effect a parallel charter school district, one with a rigorous accountability system aimed at satisfying the concerns of charter school critics. That includes a willingness to close down troubled facilities such as Flanner House-- even after a comparatively brief history and even where the school has neighborhood support.

It hasn't been an easy process. When the charter school law first went into effect, some skeptics thought it might lead to a pork- barrel system in which the mayor would seize the opportunity to reward friends and allies. But it hasn't worked out that way. An initiative that once seemed like a clear political winner has become a source of tension with traditional public school supporters and among members of Peterson's own political party. And the mayor has learned some hard lessons about the uncertainties of school policy and the vagaries of education politics.

Bart Peterson took office in 2000, winning the mayoralty at age 41 in his first try at elective office. A lawyer, developer and longtime aide to U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, he ran as a conservative Democrat armed with a book of initiatives known as the "Peterson Plan." Alongside proposals for adding 200 community police officers and banning unsupervised minors from playing violent video arcade games was a pledge to bring "world-class schools" to the city.

As he was well aware, urban school management has long been something of a political trap for would-be reformers and ambitious politicians, and Peterson, who is considered a likely candidate for governor in 2008, is both. Since elected school boards oversee K-12 education in Indiana, he might have steered clear of the issue altogether. But like a growing number of big city mayors, Peterson felt that he had no choice but to enter the treacherous waters of school reform.

"One of the battles that mayors of big cities fight these days--one of the challenges they face--is how you keep people from voting with their feet," Peterson says. "The depopulation of cities from 1950s onward is a trend that's not been good for cities. It's a trend driven by fear of crime and by seeking better education opportunities for kids." As Peterson saw it, a successful economic development program all but demanded radical improvement in the city's schools.

On the other hand, Peterson was constrained by the experiences of his predecessor. During the mid-1990s, Republican Mayor Stephen Goldsmith attempted first to control and then to displace the board of the Indianapolis public school system. After a long and acrimonious debate, Goldsmith's challenge to the status quo largely failed. The result, says Peterson, was "an environment in which there was extreme negativity about public education."

That ruled out another attempt to stack or displace the school board. It also ruled out vouchers, which had been proposed and rejected in earlier administrations. Charter schools seemed a way to side-step this controversy. Creating new schools from scratch also seemed easier than trying to reform or convert traditional low-performing public schools. So in 2001, Peterson joined Republican state Senator Teresa Lubbers to push for a law that would bring charter schools to Indiana.

Lubbers had championed charter school legislation for years, without success. In studying charter schools around the country, she had concluded that they work best when supervised by someone politically responsive to local constituencies. "I thought, 'Who is more responsive than the mayor of a city?'" Lubbers recalls. And so, with Peterson's help, she steered through the legislature a mayor-centered charter school program--something no other state had tried.

Peterson had what he wanted. He had also stepped right into one of the most contentious education debates in the country.

FEW CLOSURES

The charter school movement is based on a simple bargain: In exchange for greater autonomy, outside the confines of the regular educational system, charter schools promise to demonstrate better results. The precise terms are usually spelled out in a formal agreement between the group operating the school and the school's authorizer (in most states, a school district, university, state board of education or special charter entity group). Implicit in the arrangement is the threat that charter schools that don't meet their performance goals will be shut down.

In practice, that rarely happens. In 2002, researchers at the Center for Education Reform set out to examine how many charter schools had been closed for poor performance. They found that of 2,874 schools that had been opened around the country at that point, only 154 (barely 5 percent) had closed. Most of those closures had to do with financial problems and mismanagement. Only 14 schools--less than one- half of 1 percent--had been terminated because of poor academic performance.

The low closure rate could mean, of course, that charter schools are simply doing a superior job of educating students. However, there's little hard evidence to support that argument. Last December, the National Center for Education Statistics examined the performance of charter schools vis-a-vis traditional public schools, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The researchers found that students in charter schools scored no better than comparable students taught in a traditional setting. Inner-city African-American students in charter schools actually did worse in some subjects, including math.

"Parents like choice, but that does not mean they are necessarily making choices that pay off academically for their kids," says Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University. "Switching kids from school to school, particularly kids from lower- income families, seems to hurt them academically."

Charter school proponents argue that the NAEP statistics are nothing more than a crude snapshot of a single moment in time, not a measure of progress. And there is some data suggesting that while charter schools tend to struggle in their early years, they show up better over the long haul. Still, evidence of consistently improved performance is scarce. In some states, among them Delaware, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, charter schools seem promising. In other states, such as Ohio and Michigan, they do not.

Some education experts say that's no coincidence. "Low-performing charter schools are not a random phenomenon," says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, an education think tank. "You can trace it back to policies. There's a reason you have more low- performing charter schools in some states than in others." The reason, Rotherham believes, is that some are careful to practice oversight and demand accountability, while others mostly rely on parents to make the decisions.

ACCOUNTABILITY AUDITS

Peterson knew all this, and was determined to create a charter school program in Indianapolis that replicated the strongest experiments going on in the country, not the weakest. His schools would be carefully chosen and closely monitored by a three-person team that would recruit strong local sponsors to operate the schools, then keep precise track of their performance. Groups interested in creating charter schools would be offered information about ones that had succeeded elsewhere, such as Knowledge Is Power, an intensive, college-oriented program that operates schools in 15 states; the similarly-inspired Accelerated Learning model; Outward Bound's Expeditionary Learning schools; and the Met schools in Providence, Rhode Island.

The mayor was determined to be highly selective in granting charters. The first year, he got 30 charter applications and granted four (one of them the ill-fated Flanner House). Since then, he has received more than 80 additional letters of intent, and approved 19. Charter schools that are approved are subjected to a complex accountability process. Four times a year, each school has to turn its books over to an outside auditor. Twice a year, a team of education experts conducts site visits. Surveys regularly gauge parental satisfaction. In addition to state and federal testing requirements, which measure the performance of schools from year to year, the city's test for charter schools allows teachers to track the progress of individual students during the course of each year. The result is an assessment of learning far more sophisticated than that used by most charter systems.

Even so, the political obstacles to creating a tightly run, highly accountable charter program have been significant. The Indianapolis public school structure is extremely complex, encompassing 11 separate school districts (technically called corporations), each with its own school board and superintendent. Peterson had to create what in effect was a 12th district, composed entirely of charter schools authorized and overseen by his office. This 12th district isn't just a new addition to an already crowded school district map. In many ways it is a direct competitor to the other 11.

Peterson doesn't like to refer to his charter schools as providing "competition" to the regular system. He prefers to talk about how charter schools "meet unmet needs." But the mayor and his supporters also argue that in a school district where only 32 percent of high school students graduate in four years, the list of "unmet needs" is very large. Whatever the phraseology, there was no way to avoid tensions between charter activists and education professionals.

Among the most vehement critics has been the Indiana School Boards Association. "Public schools are already politicized enough," says Frank Bush, the association's executive director. "They don't need to be politicized any more. We don't need to get into Democrats versus Republicans. School boards run on a nonpartisan ballot. Mayors could change every four years." In Bush's opinion, the mayor's charter school initiative "is a political decision, not an education decision."

Tight budgets in the past couple of years have only added to the tensions between the mayor's office and the school system leadership. Eugene White, who took over as the Indianapolis school superintendent this summer, says that the mayor's intentions are "noble," but that the charter school push "has taken millions of dollars out of the school district." White says there should be a moratorium on new charters for several years "just to see how well the current charter schools are working."

Peterson knew that his plan would generate critics. What he didn't realize was how many of them would be longtime supporters of his. "I can't tell you how many friends and political allies that I've had to say, 'We denied your charter' to, and the number of people who've never been supporters who I've said, 'We've granted your charter." One of the first people to apply to start a charter school under the mayor's oversight was Christel DeHaan, who had chaired the campaign of Peterson's mayoral opponent. Her application was approved. Some Democrats found that a little difficult to accept.

In part because of such politically awkward situations, Peterson has been forced to spend a significant amount of time defending his program at the state level. "I thought when the law passed in 2001 that was it," the mayor says. Instead, Democrats in the legislature imposed a cap on charter schools the following year. Although the cap has since been lifted, Democratic support for charter schools has continued to soften--and, as the mayor concedes, "it was never that strong to begin with... Every legislative session we have gone in fearing that the whole thing would be taken away."

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Given all these difficulties, Peterson badly needs some success stories to quiet his critics and keep his experiment going. He thinks he has some. There is, for example, the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School in the city's impoverished Meadows neighborhood, just three miles northeast of Flanner House. Tindley underscores the mayor's reasons for optimism and the scope of his vision. It also serves as a reminder that the future of that vision is far from assured.

The first striking thing about Tindley is the building. Like most charter schools, it's in an odd space--a former supermarket. During the mid-1990s, the supermarket was supposed to spur redevelopment in the Meadows, but instead, the store closed. Neighborhood residents now hope that Tindley will accomplish what the store did not.

Tindley is just the kind of school Bart Peterson hoped to create when he launched the charter program. He doesn't disguise his fondness for the place. On one recent evening, hosting a neighborhood community development at the school, the normally soft-spoken mayor greeted the crowd with a boyish, "Welcome to the Charles A. Tindley School," almost as if he himself were the principal. Then he paused, perhaps realizing this might not be appropriate. "I guess I don't own the school," he said, although given the terms of the Indianapolis charter law, one might almost argue that he does.

The leader at Tindley, Marcus Robinson, presents himself as "principal and chief executive officer." He came to Tindley from (among other positions) a private collegiate admissions office. His approach is fairly traditional. "If I've got kids behind, they have to stay longer," says Robinson. "They may have to stay till five. They may have to come to school on Saturday. They do what they have to do to catch up. It's not rocket science." Teachers stay, too, working late and fielding phone calls about homework questions late into the night. Parents are expected to commit 50 hours a year to the school. They're also expected to commit to the school's goal of college educations for their kids.

For all of those efforts, however, Tindley hasn't lived up to its charter yet. Test results measuring students' progress last year were disappointing. Eighth graders lost ground versus their peers elsewhere in Indiana. Ninth-graders gained in reading and language but lost ground in math.

Robinson says the disappointing results are an anomaly--an artifact of a defective computerized test-taking system. But he knows that the mayor who gave him a school to run--and continues to praise him--is watching closely. "You're talking about a contract relationship," says Robinson. "If you're in a contractual agreement it really is in your best interest to ensure you are providing the services." That's particularly true when a mayor is putting his political future on the line.

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