Charter schools leader tackles new role: Mayor chooses Harris to launch broader public education program

  • Comments
  • Print

The Indiana General Assembly’s decision in 2001 to hand Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson the keys to the city’s new charter schools initiative marked the first time in the nation that a municipal leader had been given the authority to grant charters.

The unusual approach to improve educational opportunities here has earned the city several accolades, including last month’s prestigious Harvard University Innovations in American Government Award.

Now the mayor wants to expand upon the program’s success and launch a not-for-profit later this year that will aim to enhance education at all city public schools, both district and charter.

City leaders declined to comment in detail, partly because specifics have yet to be finalized.

“Indianapolis is uniquely well-positioned to continue significant reforms to our public education systems, and this new non-profit venture is designed to expand that effort, with the special emphasis on developing human capital,” Peterson said in a written statement.

To translate, the city’s aim is to recruit individuals with entrepreneurial pedigrees who can bring fresh ideas to the classroom. In what capacity is unclear. But David Harris, 36, the city’s charter schools director, has left that position to create the not-for-profit.

“We’re looking to help spawn significant change,” he said. “When high schools are failing to graduate significant percentages of their students, dramatic change is needed.”

Indianapolis Public Schools, for instance, graduated just 39 percent of its ninth-grade students within four years, according to a national analysis of the 2002-2003 academic year by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The city’s previous attempt to recruit and train potential charter leaders fizzled in May. It declined then to renew a twoyear agreement with Boston-based Building Excellent Schools to attract eight to 10 prospects for a charter fellowship.

The city had dedicated nearly $600,000 to the program through a $1.6 million grant from the locally based Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. The remaining $1 million was intended to help the city replicate successful schools and award startup grants to new charters.

The city, however, spent much less than what was earmarked for the BES partnership, Harris said.

BES recommended two candidates who completed its program, but the city rejected both, Harris said.

“… I think we learned a lot through that program, and we have learned a lot through the charter initiative as a whole,” he said. “I would definitely say that was an experience that taught us a lot about the challenges of attracting top-quality leaders to these schools.”

Embracing charters

IPS Superintendent Eugene White, a director of the yet-to-be-named not-forprofit, backs the mayor’s latest effort to improve learning standards. He’s among a growing number of public school leaders embracing the charter model.

“I think what the mayor has in mind is to create a situation where Indianapolis is playing a leadership role in innovation in education,” White said. “It has an entrepreneurial feel to it, but the ultimate goal is to improve the education system in Indianapolis and the metropolitan area.”

KIPP Indianapolis, a middle-school part of the national Knowledge is Power Program, moved from an Indianapolis Housing Agency community center this school year to IPS’ Coleman Middle School on East 30th Street. KIPP, now an IPS partner school, will house grades 5 through 7 and ultimately add an 8th grade.

The Decatur Discovery Academy charter high school is part of the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township. And the Lawrence Early College High School for Science and Technologies launched in Lawrence Township this month.

Charters receive tuition support payments from the state, but unlike other public schools, they do not get any tax revenue for their buildings. Sixteen charter schools serving more than 4,000 students operate in Indianapolis.

The new not-for-profit Harris is leading on behalf of the mayor is designed to build upon reforms-such as the charter-school partnerships-led by White and his colleague at Decatur Township, Superintendent Donald Stinson, Harris said.

“We want to support them, whether or not it’s mirroring a charter,” he said. “At some point, the mayor will make an announcement and provide details.”

Harris successor

Harris, a Governor’s Fellow under former Gov. Evan Bayh, was practicing law at Baker & Daniels LLP when Peterson, contemplating his candidacy for mayor, contacted him in 1998.

Peterson presented him with two issues-crime and education-that he could research for the campaign. Harris chose education and wrote a paper on charter schools. He later crafted a plan that could be put in place if the mayor were to receive the authority to grant charters.

Sen. Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced the proposal, which made Peterson the only mayor in the nation with such authority.

Lubbers is willing to give the mayor’s latest proposal a shot.

“I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to trying to find new models and concepts,” she said. “[His plan] really does rely on school leadership, so that alone is why I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Harris left Baker & Daniels in 2001 to work under Peterson. He will continue to serve as a senior adviser to the mayor on charter schools. Coincidentally, a lawyer from Harris’ former firm has replaced him as charter schools director.

Daniel Roy, 32, practiced in the litigation department but honed his charterschool credentials serving as legal counsel for the program.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.