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Daniels, Peterson recall the birth of charter schools at Mind Trust event

Kevin Chavous (left) leads a panel discussion with former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (center) and former Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Kevin Chavous (left) leads a panel discussion with former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (center) and former Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Scott Elliott

Former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels reminisced tonight about their efforts to promote change in education at an event celebrating more than a decade of school reform in Indiana.

The dinner and panel discussion, sponsored by The Mind Trust, attracted a full house of 750 invitees to the Indiana Roof Ballroom. The crowd included many key players who pushed for change in education since Peterson was first elected in 2000 and served until 2008. Daniels’ election as governor followed in 2004. He left after two terms in 2012 to become president of Purdue University.

Kevin Chavous, an Indianapolis native and former Washington, D.C., city councilman who co-founded Democrats for Education Reform, moderated a discussion with Peterson and Daniels. He called the changes Daniels pushed through the Indiana legislature in 2011 — expanding charter schools, instituting tougher teacher evaluation, limiting teacher union bargaining and launching a private school tuition voucher program — “the most wide-ranging reform we’ve ever seen in America.”

Daniels pointed out that it took him seven years before the political environment was right for those changes, but that he tried to accomplish many of his biggest goals for education at once when the moment arrived.

“We tried to shoot the moon,” he said. “We thought we had to address all of them to make a difference for Indiana’s kids.”

Peterson said he pushed for the law that legalized charter schools — the earliest schools opened in 2002 — in hopes of finding a middle ground in the feud between traditional school district loyalists resisting change and business leaders demanding it.

“I believed charter schools could be a vehicle for finding that sort of elusive consensus around improving education,” he said.

The data was unmistakable, Peterson said: not enough Indianapolis kids were graduating with a high-quality education.

“You had to accept that something had to change,” he said.

What resulted was Peterson became the first mayor in the country with the power to sponsor charter schools, a surprise for a Democrat. His successor, Republican Greg Ballard, is still the only mayor with that ability.

“It was a terrific idea,” Peterson said. “I wish we could see more cities do this throughout the country.”

Both men spoke of the difficult politics of school reform, but said they were satisfied by the results of the changes they pushed for.

Peterson said Democratic opposition to charter schools, for example, is mostly in state legislatures. In cities like Indianapolis, it’s common to find Democrats who back them. And, he pointed out, Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both were strong charter school supporters.

“The politics of education reform are pretty fascinating,” Peterson said.

Daniels argued that school choice has made education better for those who need it the most.

“Private choice, to me, has always been, first and last, a matter of social justice,” he said. “I accept, I believe and I think we’ve seen the economic argument that public school choice will improve all schools.”

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