School choice is growing in popularity across the US. Many mayors care about education, but most do not have mayoral control of public school districts. This leaves kids and families in cities with multiple options for schools and little for mayors to do to change the situation. What can city leaders do to help families make informed decisions and improve educational outcomes? Ashley Berner, Deputy Director of the JHU Institute for Education Policy (IEP), and Katherine Klosek, GovEx Director of Applied Research, spoke with practitioners, John F. Elcesser, Executive Director of Indiana Non-Public Education Association (INPEA), and David Harris of The Mind Trust in Indianapolis about the diversity of education options in the City. The conversation revealed three recommendations for mayors that wish to take on education concerns.
Recommendation 1: Set a collaborative tone
When considering policy options for education reform, it’s critical to invite experts in education as well as people with local lived experience. Mayors can and should serve as conveners of education partners, inviting representatives from all education sectors, parents, teachers, education reformers, and political leaders to participate in meaningful conversations about the best way to improve outcomes for students.
In Indianapolis, Bart Peterson, who served as Mayor of Indianapolis from 2000-2008, was able to usher in a charter school reform agenda with a collaborative message about lifting up all education sectors, rather than placing blame on any particular model. Discussions of school reform included political leaders, education reformers, business leaders, and charter and private representatives. This collaborative approach ultimately led to an initiative called Innovation Network Schools, which is meant to improve the public school system. A program of Mind Trust, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), and the Mayor’s Office, the Innovation Network Schools program provides resources and operational and academic freedom to transform schools into Innovation schools or create new Innovation schools. Innovation Schools are seeing higher passing rates on standardized tests, which is an early indication that this strategy may be working.
Recommendation 2: Ensure accountability in, and quality of, education
Mayors should consider outcome measures focused on what they can control: If the Mayor does not have charter authorization in your city, consider measures that track funded and unfunded partnerships. For instance, ReinventSchools is a partnership in Las Vegas between the Clark County School District, the City of Las Vegas, and local nonprofits, which provides additional resources to certain under performing schools in order to improve academic achievement. The Mayor and City Manager track outcomes in increasing high school graduation, improving kindergarten readiness, and other measures through the City’s performance management program “Results Vegas.”
Requiring rigorous accreditation is one way to ensure that cities have the capacity and resources to provide quality education. As a charter authorizer, Indianapolis’s Mayor is at the center of the conversation on education, which puts the Mayor in a position to create rigor in up front screening and ongoing accountability. In addition, each year, the Indianapolis Office of Education Innovation evaluates mayor-sponsored charter schools based on a performance framework that includes questions on educational outcomes beyond test scores, including fiscal health, effectiveness of the organization, and conditions for success. This allows for analysis of what is happening in the school without compromising the school’s autonomy. As a result, Indianapolis’s charter school system has high rates of satisfaction among parents and staff, and students have gained ground or stayed even with state and national peers in most subjects and grades.
Because non-public schools cannot accept new students if they perform poorly, accountability standards are considered higher for those schools. In Indiana in 2015, students in non-public schools had a passage rate that was 11 percentage points higher on statewide standardized tests than public schools.
Recommendation 3: Support families
Transparency about the enrollment process and school performance is important to help parents make the right decisions. GovEx worked with the City of Vilnius to develop an app to help parents map kindergartens and navigate the selection process. The City plans to use data collected from the app to inform its work in other areas, such as transit and building planning.
Research has shown that parents who are given the option to choose their children’s school consider safety as their first priority. Once this is met, parents turn to academic considerations. In Indianapolis, the Enroll Indy tool helps families choose schools based on their child’s interests and needs in programming, sports, after school care, and other options, while providing a unified enrollment process. Groups, like the Institute for Quality Education, provide online tools to help parents access school accountability grades and determine if they may qualify for a tax credit scholarship or school voucher to pay for private school tuition.
The Indiana Department of Education and Indianapolis Non-Public Education Association websites include information for parents such as FAQs on the school choice voucher program, and information on school performance.
Information also spreads through word of mouth, so cities should work with community organizations and churches to help spread this information. When discussing education, city leaders should focus the conversation on the impact on kids and families, rather than the differences in institutions.