Blog | September 28, 2021

Articulating the Benefits of Autonomous Schools

By Bart Peterson, The Mind Trust’s Founding Board Chair and Former Mayor of Indianapolis

When I became Mayor of Indianapolis in 2000, education was one of my top priorities. When I got the power to authorize charter schools from the state legislature in 2001, it became, arguably, the most important part of my job. Five years into my time in office, my Charter Schools Director David Harris and I had learned a lot and understood our city’s limitations when it came to pursuing the type of transformational education outcomes we knew Indianapolis students and families were eager for.

Organizations like Teach For America had demonstrated the power of entrepreneurs in education to create a meaningful impact in classrooms. But there was a gap in Indianapolis in leadership talent that was necessary to grow autonomous schools and improve access to a great education for every child. The Mind Trust was the pathway to a solution. David Harris created The Mind Trust and served as Founder and CEO. I was the Founding Board Chair, a position I served in for more than a decade.

I am also proud to have witnessed The Mind Trust bring the charter sector and the traditional school sector to a place of partnership. In most cities, these sectors engage in intractable conflict.

Bart Peterson

With The Mind Trust turning 15 this year, I’ve reflected back on how notable its creation was in the first place. To go from an idea in David’s head to being seen today as an essential organization and partner in our education landscape is really quite an accomplishment. There was no blueprint for what we were doing when we formed The Mind Trust in 2006. We were upstarts. But we worked hard to earn trust and the financial backing necessary to lead change and empower entrepreneurial leaders to take schools in innovative directions for the benefit of students.

I am also proud to have witnessed The Mind Trust bring the charter sector and the traditional school sector to a place of partnership. In most cities, these sectors engage in intractable conflict. Not so in Indianapolis these days. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in forging a mutually beneficial relationship. You can see the results of this partnership in the progress we’ve made in elevating schools across our city. What made it all possible was, I believe, a unified vision that prioritized student success over individual recognition or control.

In thinking about the past two decades, another thing that sets Indianapolis apart in education progress is bipartisanship. I’ve been thrilled to see my successors in the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office continue building on the work we started when we authorized the city’s first charter schools in the early 2000s. No matter the political party holding that office, education progress has been prioritized and largely free of the type of partisan squabbling that bogs down opportunity in so many places around the country.

We need to protect the ground we have gained. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about education progress.

Bart Peterson

Looking forward, we need to protect the ground we have gained. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about education progress. It took dedicated leadership, creativity, and constant work to realize the gains of the past two decades. If those advances are not nurtured and protected, we could easily slide backwards. It has happened in other cities, where nascent reforms – and a strong sense of optimism – were snuffed out.

Something I really hope our city prioritizes in these next years is diverse teacher recruitment. If there’s a teacher shortage, there’s a reason for it. I’m glad The Mind Trust is tackling this issue head-on and I hope our city can think innovatively about compensation, ongoing professionalization, and how to make teaching more attractive to young people. Without a consistent pipeline of high-quality teachers, the future of our schools is bleak.

Another priority for our city and state should be equitably funding schools. Right now, charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools because of a lack of access to local tax dollars. Do children in charter schools matter less? Of course not. Addressing this funding disparity starts with a recognition that charter schools are public schools, period. Charter schools must accept every kid who walks in the door, just as traditional schools do. With steadily increasing enrollment, families are clearly choosing charter schools and benefiting from them. As long as this funding gap remains, students and families lose – and our city loses.

I don’t want to just dwell on the challenges facing us. I should also take a moment to mention the successes we have seen. One school in particular that exemplifies the potential and progress of autonomous schools is Hope Academy. I remember how enthusiastic I was when it was founded and applied to my office for a charter. For Hope Academy to create an autonomous school focused on kids in recovery from substance abuse was compelling and logical. Public schools weren’t designed to handle something like that. Since its founding, I think it’s fair to say that the people of Hope Academy have saved a lot of lives and healed individuals and families that really needed help. Hope Academy needed the freedom to do what it does outside of traditional district constraints.

I believe Hope Academy’s example points to a larger reality. We need to be clear, passionate, and consistent in articulating the benefits of autonomous schools. We can’t sit back and hope people will just get it. Autonomous schools achieve incredible things on a daily basis. But if we don’t talk about their successes, we can’t be surprised when people believe some of the misinformation they hear about them. By doubling down on autonomous schools, I am confident the next fifteen years can be even better than the last fifteen for our city, its families, and the children who represent its future.