Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Indianapolis Mayor's Office

Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2006–07 school year)

First year of operation Number of staff Total number of schools Number of students Total number of school closures
2001 4 16 2,768 1

Indiana State Charter Law:

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is not only a strong supporter of charter schools, his office is the only mayor's office in the country granted the power to authorize charter schools by the state charter law. The mayor's office oversaw 16 charter schools in the 2006–07 school year, four of which opened in that year. In the 2004–05 year, 100 percent of the mayor's schools made AYP, compared to 38 percent of schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools system. Still in its early years of authorizing, beginning in 2001, the mayor's office has been focused on developing strong selection and oversight processes instead of rapidly opening large numbers of schools.

Authorizing through the mayor's office brings high visibility, ready political and financial resources, and familiarity with community-based organizations and neighborhood needs. It also offers immediate accountability through Indianapolis voters. Mayor Peterson has made his charter efforts very public through press releases, public addresses, and an annual report on charter schools. The report includes detailed performance assessments and profiles of each mayorauthorized charter school based on the office's Charter School Performance Framework.

Under charter law in Indianapolis, the mayor and his staff are able to make authorizing decisions without interference from the state or district. The Indiana State Board of Education can overturn chartering decisions but cannot grant its own charters.

The mayor's overarching goal for charter schools is to expand public education opportunities throughout the city, specifically by opening more charter high schools, increasing financing for charter school facilities, attracting top education leaders to Indianapolis, and engaging the business community in Indianapolis public schools.

So far, the mayor's office has made significant progress on all four of these fronts. Nine of its 16 schools in the 2006–07 school year include high school grades. The mayor's office also provides low-cost capital financing for charter school facilities. A bank provides up to $20 million in loans—backed by the city's Local Public Improvement Bond Bank—for qualified charter schools, which can borrow at tax-exempt rates to purchase, construct, renovate, or lease a facility. The mayor's office recently helped launch a new nonprofit organization, the Mind Trust, to attract talented leaders into the city to launch new schools and start other education ventures in Indianapolis. And most charter schools authorized by the mayor's office operate in partnership with local community organizations and businesses, which help them make local connections and draw upon community resources.

To make authorizing decisions, the mayor's office is advised by the Indianapolis Charter Schools Board, a group of community leaders with experience in education, business, and law. The board's primary role is to assist the mayor's office with decisions about approvals. The board also has helped develop criteria by which to judge charter school applicants, has reviewed and approved the application process that the mayor's office uses, and provides continuing oversight of the achievement, finances, staffing, and facilities of charter schools authorized by the mayor's office. Once the mayor decides to grant a charter, the City-County Council votes on whether to ratify his decision. As of January 2007, the City-County Council has ratified all of the mayor's decisions to grant charters.

Staff in the mayor's charter schools office describe their office as a "bureaucracy-free operation." It has only four staff members, and its director reports directly to the mayor. These staff members handle core tasks, such as communication with school leaders about regulations, compliance and policy-setting in the school. The mayor's office also relies heavily on external consultants for more intermittent responsibilities, such as site visits, accountability reports, and parent surveys. Several of the external consultants are leading experts in their fields—from school accountability to opinion surveys.

In partnership with these consultants, the mayor's team has developed tools and best practices that are used by other authorizers around the nation, including a comprehensive accountability framework23 and a monitoring system that gauges school performance on governance, finance, and student achievement several times per year.

The office is continually revising its processes. The charter application, for example, has been revised five times, as has the timeframe in which schools are expected to open—both in response to feedback from their schools and experience gained from watching these schools get up and running.

The mayor's office has been very strategic about recruitment of new charter applicants, addressing a "talent shortage" on three fronts: attracting successful school models nationally that have the capacity to replicate in Indianapolis; creating a climate that is conducive to charter school success, including creating a city-backed charter facilities financing program; and recruiting and providing training to build a supply of strong charter school leaders in Indianapolis. Indianapolis has been able to recruit several national school models to replicate in the city, including Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, and Lighthouse Academies.

When asked what is most important in charter applications, the mayor's office staff members are likely to answer, "People, people, people." The Indianapolis staff views people as the most meaningful factor in a school's success: applicants' capacity, not just their abilities or their intentions. In the words of David Harris, former director of the office, "It's not about the model. It's about the people. For example, one school dealt with a well-respected construction company that made a six-figure mistake about the cost of the facility. The chair of the [school] board was a sophisticated and high-profile business person who had access to the resources to solve the problem. We couldn't have anticipated that problem; they couldn't have anticipated that problem. But they had people who had the ability to do the work and a board that could support them in overcoming unforeseen obstacles."

All charter schools authorized by the mayor's office are required to develop an accountability plan during the first year of their charters, in which they define their specific performance goals. All schools also are required to administer state examinations in all state test grades and to administer additional tests in both the fall and the spring to measure progress over the course of the school year. Schools also are encouraged to develop school-specific goals based on the school's mission, but these are not required.

The charter law in Indiana only provides one type of recourse for authorizers when a school is out of compliance: revoking a charter. There is no intermediate penalty, which poses a significant challenge for the mayor's office when otherwise successful schools have trouble complying with nonacademic requirements. If a high-performing school is out of compliance, the mayor's office will send a letter to the school leader, then perhaps a reminder letter, and will talk to the school's board, but the mayor's office will not deliberately attempt to undermine the school's success, for example, by issuing a press release indicating that the school is failing. When a school faces nonacademic challenges that do not warrant closure, the mayor's office relies on repeated communication to encourage the school to address the challenges effectively.

The big question regarding a mayoral authorizer is what will happen when the current mayor departs. The prospect of a non-charter-friendly successor has guided the authorizing staff since the beginning, and they are consistently focused on creating sustainable policies, processes, and protocols that stand the best chance of ensuring some longevity in charter authorizing regardless of who comes into office after Mayor Peterson.

Signs of Success: Indianapolis Mayor's Office
  • The pass rates of the mayor's office-authorized charter schools on Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus (ISTEP+) tests rose substantially between 2002 and 2004. That is, all the charter schools authorized by the mayor's office that were in operation in 2003 and 2004 administered the test in those years and demonstrated average student gains of 10 percentage points. Older mayor's office-authorized schools administered the test in 2002 as well and showed even greater student gains, averaging 22 points higher over the two year period.

  • Charter schools authorized by the mayor's office administered the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress tests in reading, math, and English in the fall of 2004 and the spring of 2005. Students in these schools made greater gains on the tests between the fall and the spring than their Indiana peers in 13 out of 21 (62 percent) grades and subjects for which results are available. Students in charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office made greater gains than their national peers in 12 out of 23 (52 percent) grades and subjects.

  • In a 2005 survey administered by the University of Indianapolis' Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, 85 percent of staff and 89 percent of parents expressed satisfaction with charter schools authorized by the mayor's office.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009