As major cities across the country grapple with underperforming public schools, the creation of charter schools is often turned to as an alternative approach to education. These charter schools are essential options in providing varied approaches to students' different learning techniques. However, developing a system of accountability for this wide range of schools presents an equally daunting challenge. In Indianapolis, the mayor is directly responsible for the success or failure of the city's charter schools—a first for the nation.
In 2001, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson received the authority to grant charters and oversee schools. A key component of this Charter School Initiative is the mayor's unique position of direct accountability to all city residents, unlike superintendents or school committee members. The transparency in the charter school authorization process is another vital aspect of the system. Charter schools administered by the mayor must provide results that include strong performance in academics, positive parent and staff feedback, and thorough reports by expert site visitors. If any school fails to meet this set of standards, the school's doors are closed—a step that Mayor Peterson is not hesitant to take.
Peterson's unique position as mayor allows him to use his connections and authority to attract strong leaders and partners to start and support the charter schools. He also has the ability to be extremely selective with charter applicants and only grant charters to those with proven education models. Furthermore, mayors are in a position to advocate on behalf of charter schools in the state legislature and access facilities, financing, and a range of other city services that are often stumbling blocks for new charter schools. Perhaps most importantly, the mayor possesses an intimate knowledge of the entire community, which is critical in making sound decisions regarding charter granting.
As of the fall of 2006, 20 new school charters had been granted by Mayor Peterson, serving over 2,700 students citywide. These are some of the most disadvantaged students in Indianapolis, including students at risk of dropping out and those facing severe learning challenges because of poverty and inadequate early education. Back in 2002, only 26% of charter school third-graders passed the state test upon entry, compared to 44% across the Indianapolis Public Schools.
Despite these disadvantages, the students enrolled in the city's charter schools are making some of the most significant academic gains: charter school students increased their pass rate by 22 points between 2002 and 2004, compared to a one-point increase for the Indianapolis Public School System during the same time period. And from 2003 to 2004, the average improvement in pass rates increased to 25.5% for these charter school students. Ultimately, by setting such high standards for charter schools, the mayor aspires to motivate other schools across the city to work towards replicating these impressive levels of achievements.