More lessons from Indianapolis

Ten days ago, The Hechinger Report took a look at Indianapolis, asking if charter schools — either through competition or collaboration — could be a means of improving achievement across a failing school system, as policymakers have often argued.

Though charters themselves are doing well in the city, the public-school system is still struggling. Moreover, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) Superintendent Eugene White argues that competition from charters is hurting his city’s public-school system — and that most charters aren’t even innovative.

A recent report out of Vanderbilt University’s National Center on School Choice, also focused on Indiana, highlights the complex relationship between theory and practice in charter-school policy.

The report,  “Taking Charge of Choice: How Charter School Policy Contexts Matter,” takes a look at how the state’s charter-school law came to be in 2001, detailing the problems facing the Indianapolis Public Schools at the time and how charter policy was crafted to help solve them.

The problems, as described in the report, were multiple: Indianapolis had one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, the city’s population was shrinking, and in a messy school system with 11 different districts, there was little or no direct accountability for school performance.

Charters emerged, promoted by Republican State Senator Lisa Lubbers and former-Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, as a way to inject accountability and innovation into the state’s schools.

Peterson became the first mayor in the country with independent authority to grant charters. (To date, no other mayor has been given the same authorizing power over charters.) As Peterson put it in his 2001 State of the City address: “A sponsor must evaluate charter school proposals and hold the schools accountable for their performance …  A mayor is accountable to the public for all decisions and the decisions I might make as a charter school sponsor would be no exception.”

Indeed, the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation still takes pride in how it holds charter schools and their authorizer accountable. From a rigorous application process — the mayor is allowed to authorize up to five new charters a year, though he has done so only once — and yearly reports (based on test scores and observations) to transparency about schools’ finances, the mayor’s office works to ensure it only opens, and keeps open, solid schools. It remains acutely aware that in any given election, the mayor’s fate may be tied directly to charter-school performance.

But while charters have brought some accountability to the district (at least for the schools the mayor has opened), the second policy goal — spurring innovation in all schools — remains mostly unmet.

The report’s author, Claire Smrekar, found that there have been many developments that “represent the potential for achieving some of the promises of charter school reform,” including the introduction of Teach For America and The New Teacher Project in Indianapolis, as well as new inter-institutional partnerships (such as that among IPS, the University of Indianapolis and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

Yet all of this potential has not been realized in the city at large, according to Smrekar: “To be sure, the academic trajectory for the more than 50,000 students enrolled in that system are [sic] far less than the goals established by the charter school policy network and policy entrepreneurs.”