National | December 22, 2014

Let Mayors Authorize Charter Schools

By David Harris

Next month, as hundreds of new mayors take office, improving local schools will be a top priority for many. Cities across the country suffer from lagging student achievement and high dropout rates, and elected officials know the role that education plays in the overall vitality of their communities.

In most cities, elected school boards, rather than mayors, govern local school districts — but state legislatures can grant mayors the authority to authorize new charter schools. To make an impact on improving educational outcomes, both incoming and sitting mayors should petition their state legislatures to give them this ability.

Charter schools are public schools that receive taxpayer funds but are exempt from the labor contracts and other strictures weighing down traditional schools. The charter model allows school operators to innovate and tailor their approach to meet the needs of students. And importantly, charters can compensate teachers based on merit, not according to antiquated union rules.

Charters also are positioned for success because they face competitive pressures to improve. Parents are provided information about achievement scores and graduation rates, and they’re free to pull their kids out of an underperforming institution and enroll in a better one.

But critical to charter schools’ success are their authorizers — the entities that give charters the right to operate and hold the schools accountable for student achievement.

Mayors operate within specific political and policy parameters that position them to authorize high quality charter schools that live up to their potential to transform student lives. Mayors understand the communities that charters serve, and that local context helps them determine whether a team of educators and community leaders applying for a charter can work effectively with parents and teachers.

Importantly — unlike other charter authorizers — mayors are directly accountable to their communities. They can be thrown out of office in the next election by dissatisfied parents if they hand out charters to subpar operators. Because of this, mayors have a powerful incentive to rigorously review charter applications and shut down underperforming schools. Under a mayoral authorizer, bad charters won’t be allowed to fail with impunity — either the school or its authorizer will pay a price.

The mayor-sponsored model is already in action in my home city of Indianapolis — and it’s making a significant impact in improving educational outcomes.

Back in 2001, the Indiana legislature granted then-Mayor Bart Peterson the authority to issue new public school charters. Peterson, a Democrat, eagerly embraced this new power, and so has his successor, Greg Ballard, a Republican.

In 2001, there were no charters in Indianapolis. Today, there are 37, all of which are governed by nonprofit boards. These schools are succeeding. A report from Stanford University shows that mayor-sponsored charters in Indianapolis generate two to three months of additional learning each year compared to traditional public schools. On this year’s statewide achievement test, students at mayor-sponsored charter schools were 11 percentage points more likely to achieve proficiency in English, and 10 points more likely to achieve proficiency in math, than were students of local public schools, according to an analysis by the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education.

The Indianapolis model is recognized as a national model. In 2006, Mayor Peterson’s administration won Harvard’s Innovations in American Government award for the charter school authorizing office it built. During Mayor Ballard’s tenure, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers designated the mayor’s office as a model authorizer.

Part of what has made Indianapolis’s mayor-sponsored charter effort so successful is that schools are held to account. Indeed, the mayor’s office has revoked charters from operators because of consistently poor student scores on achievement exams.

Other mayors have noticed the power of Indianapolis’s approach and have followed suit. In 2013, the Ohio legislature granted Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman chartering authority. More mayors should follow Indianapolis’s and Columbus’s lead. For cities across the country, no other issue could be more important to their economy’s future success, or the well-being of their residents.

David Harris is the founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, a school reform non-profit based in Indianapolis. Previously, Harris served as the City of Indianapolis’s first charter schools director.