Indianapolis Mayor Peterson’s Education Initiative Receives National Innovation Award
By David W. Burns, USCM Intern
July 24, 2006
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter school initiative has just been nationally recognized as one of the six “most creative and effective initiatives of American government” by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Mayors are always expected to institute innovative and refreshing projects to improve their cities even in areas where they typically do not have an explicit role such as education.
Peterson received authority from the state of Indiana to create a separate charter public school system in 2001. Over five years it has blossomed into one of the most successful charter school efforts in the nation. This prestigious award comes with a $100,000 prize, which is awarded to the charter school project.
“Through our charter schools initiative, we are providing high-quality education options to families in our community. Receiving Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award brings more national validation and attention to our program and it will help us to spread the word about what has been accomplished here,” Peterson said upon winning the award.
Beginning in 2001, Peterson decided that it was important to do something about education in his city even though he as mayor did not have an explicit role, but was often held responsible for the public school systems’ problems and performance. Under the mayor’s authority, the City of Indianapolis has authorized 11 charter schools. These public charter schools are different from traditional public schools because each one has the responsibility of setting its own curriculum and focus, hiring and firing the staff, and setting the school’s budget and organization. In essence, each charter school is its own school district.
One measure of the individual Indianapolis charter schools’ success has been their continued increase in test scores, including a 25 percent increase in the number of students passing the state education exams for these charter schools versus a 1 percent increase elsewhere across the state. The success is also attributable to the leadership, management and rigorous oversight of the charter school system by David Harris, who was appointed by the mayor to direct the initiative. His office produces a yearly comprehensive report on the city’s charter schools and conducts a very deliberate and rigorous selection process to determine which applicants are given charter school status.
The mayor’s accountability model has been at the heart of the charter schools’ success. “The accountability system isn’t a piece of cheerleading but a solid look at how charters are doing and how they can continually improve; it’s a great example of transparency in action,” said Andrew Rotherham of the Education Sector. Peterson credits the schools’ success to leadership, “It’s all about leadership,” he said.
Peterson’s leadership and willingness to take on the challenge of education by obtaining the power to authorize public charter schools is an excellent example of mayors facing problems and finding new and innovative ways to address them. This indicates that mayors can and do impact their cities in numerous ways, especially when breaking from their traditional roles and responsibilities.