Commentary: To the victor go the schools?

November 5, 2007

I have no idea who will get the job of mayor of Indianapolis come Nov. 7. But whoever it is can make a real difference in this town by tackling its most pressing issue: public schools.

Good schools are the lifeblood of any community. They increase property values, lower crime and make your municipality more attractive to companies looking to relocate. Marion County schools haven't had the best track records. Whether it's Indianapolis Public Schools and its academic performance, Washington Township and its massive building expansion (which takes a lot of cohones in the wake of the property-tax revolt) or the sex scandals of Warren Township. Who would want to set up shop here?

If the next mayor, be it Bart Peterson or Greg Ballard, really wants to make a difference, the day after being sworn in, he will walk down Market Street to the Capitol and ask the Legislature for operational control of all Marion County public schools. And once he gets it, he will turn each school into a charter school, give parents a property-tax voucher, and let them go to the school of their choice. Pretty bold stuff, eh?

If the mayor had control over the schools and adopted this plan in the process, just imagine how this city would turn around. The idea of a mayor's having control over the schools is not a new concept. It's been done before, granted with mixed results. But if done right, this could really put Indianapolis on the educational map.

We already have a system by which the mayor can create charter schools. And Indianapolis charter schools have received national recognition for their achievement efforts. If you can do this with one charter school, imagine if every school were one. Imagine if parents didn't have just nine school districts, but 90 schools to pick from. You could choose from a traditional school, arts-oriented, trade and tech, life sciences-the possibilities are endless.

And with one person whom everybody knows running the show, as opposed to some unaccountable, amorphous blob of bureaucracy nobody knows, there is a lot more accountability. Schools that don't perform go out of business and the ones that do well stay, grow and prosper.

For you businesspeople in the crowd, does any of this seem familiar? Healthy competition and choice have always been good for the American economy, so why not do it for American education?

The only people who would really complain about this system would be teachers' unions, which I argue are the reason schools are failing in the first place. Note, I did not say teachers, I said teachers' unions. They are about as useful as R. Kelly at Girl Scout camp. (You older folks can ask your kids what that reference means.)

The other lobby who would fight this are what I call the "educrats." These are the people involved in the education system, but who do nothing to educate children. They simply take up space and have their IVs hooked up to the taxpayers' trough. With the elimination of unions and educrats, a wealth of capital is freed up that can be used to educate kids.

In addition to addressing crime, taxes and quality of life, the next mayor should tackle education. The mayor's taking control of the schools would increase accountability, result in less waste and lower taxes, improve quality of life and, most important, help kids and their families.

Anyone who would argue with this brilliant idea needs to go back to school.

Shabazz is the morning show host on WXNT-AM 1430, the news analyst on WRTV-TV Channel 6, and of counsel at the law firm of John, Lewis & Wilkins. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at ashabazz@ibj.com.
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