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Education on back burner as Indianapolis mayor's race sprints to the finish

WTLC's Amos Brown (left) moderates a debate between Republican Chuck Brewer (center) and Democrat Joe Hogsett (right).
WTLC's Amos Brown (left) moderates a debate between Republican Chuck Brewer (center) and Democrat Joe Hogsett (right).
Scott Elliott

The race to replace Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is nearly to the finish line, but the city’s education issues remain a secondary focus.

Case in point: Today’s final mayoral debate moderated by radio host Amos Brown at WTLC’s downtown studios.

Brown asked the candidates questions for about 45 minutes, but most of the conversation focused on public safety and crime.

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the bleak summer of shootings and even more recent incidents that included an armed robbery of a north side restaurant during business hours and a shooting in front of an east side mall.

The candidates made occasional reference to the relationship between the need for better educational and other opportunities for children and the possibility that it could lead them away from involvement with gangs, drugs and violence.

But there was just once question that explicitly focused on Indianapolis Public Schools and education across the city’s 11 school districts and more than 25 charter schools. Brown asked if the candidates would support an education summit.

They both said yes.

Democrat Joe Hogsett, the former U.S. Attorney General, said education and public safety together should be the the city’s top two priorities.

He said part of the problem at IPS is poor communication, seemingly referencing a heated debate over the last couple of weeks over a district plan to close Key Learning Community, shift arts programs from School 70 to the Key building and drop middle school grades from Broad Ripple High School.

The board voted to close Key on Thursday before a meeting was even held at the school to give parents more information. That meeting is on Monday.

Board members did hold off voting on the other parts of the plan to allow for public meetings at those schools on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Part of the challenge we face with IPS currently, and some of the decision being made — they have a communications problem,” Hogsett said.

He said an education summit could help come up with strategies for the district to “better communicate to parents and other people in the community what decisions are being made, and how they are being made, before the decisions are made.”

Republican Chuck Brewer, a former U.S. Marine and businessowner, touted his plan to advocate giving the mayor two school board appointments.

“We have to create a school system that delivers great quality education for all of our kids. Period,” he said.

Brewer said only half of kids who attend public schools across the city go to a quality school.

“That means there are a number of school districts that are not doing their jobs well,” he said. “We can help them at the city.”

The election could have a major impact on education as it is unclear how committed both candidates are to continuing using the mayor’s office to push for change in IPS and opening new charter schools.

Indianapolis is the only city in the country with a mayor who has the power to sponsor charter schools. Through two administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, over 15 years the city’s mayors have sponsored a growing collection of charter schools while calling for reform in IPS.

Neither Hogsett or Brewer has said they would change course dramatically on education from their predecessors. But Hogsett has said he thinks the mayor should have a broader focus that includes township schools and charter school quality over quantity.

Brewer said he was “rooting” for traditional public schools to outcompete charter schools. The purpose of charter schools, he said, was to help “fill the gap” in the meantime.

The election is Tuesday.

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