Joe Hogsett looks to forge his own path on education

Former U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, who at least for the moment looks like the front runner to become mayor of Indianapolis in 2016, has made few public comments on his views on education in the city.

But in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat, Hogsett suggested if he were elected mayor, he might be less activist than the last two men to hold the job — Greg Ballard and Bart Peterson — who shared a common outlook that pushing more charter schools would improve education in the city. But he isn’t opposed to school choice either.

The mayor, he said, should be a “convener” of education discussions and a “cheerleader” for public schools across the city. He also should be a firm, but transparent, overseer of the charter schools he sponsors, Hogsett said.

And while he praised Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and said the newly reconstituted, post-election Indianapolis Public School Board should be given a chance to make changes, Hogsett also said he would be open to a discussion about changing the way the district is governed, including the possibility of the mayor appointing board members.

From preschool, to charter schools, to IPS, to township schools, Hogsett promised to take a broad view of the mayor’s role in education.

“I don’t seek to be the education mayor,” Hogsett said. “That is too limiting. Maybe I want to be our children’s mayor.”

An educated candidate

Joe Hogsett might not be a teacher or an expert in policy, but he has more experience as a student than most people who have sought the job before him.

In fact, he might well be the most educated mayoral candidate in the city’s history. Hogsett has five advanced degrees, including four graduate degrees he earned after finishing high school in Rushville and a bachelor’s degree in history and political science at Indiana University.

He pursued one of his graduate degrees — a law degree from Indiana — for professional reasons. Hogsett has worked as a private practice attorney for more than 20 years in addition to 10 years in government: six as Indiana’s secretary of state and four as a U.S. Attorney.

But Hogsett went on to earn a masters degree in English at Butler, a masters degree in theological studies from Indianapolis’ Christian Theological Seminary and a masters degree in history from Indiana.

“I’ve just always had a deep curiosity,” he said.

Some of his friends thought he was a little crazy.

“They’d say, ‘how will this enable you to make more money in your law practice?’” he said. “I’d say, ‘well, it probably won’t.’ They would always look perplexed and say, ‘why are you doing it?’”

As an adult, he’s had strong ties to traditional public education. His own children attend public school and early in his legal career he represented the Indiana State Teachers Association. But his political work has not previously put him in the center of the public debates about schools.

That’s about to change.

The shifting political landscape

Over the course of a couple of weeks in early November, the future outlook for the city’s leadership was altered when two-term Republican Mayor Ballard announced he would not run again. That news was followed quickly by Hogsett’s announcement that he was getting in the race.

No Republican foe has yet announced an effort to take Ballard’s place in the race. On the Democratic side, State Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, pulled out of the race last week, leaving Hogsett alone in seeking the job. The Indianapolis Star has reported the Rev. Charles Harrison is considering a run, but he has not yet announced if he will.

The scrambling of the race has raised a lot of questions about the role of the future mayor in education and how Hogsett or other potential replacements for Ballard may — or may not — share the policy approach that has prevailed for more than a decade.

Peterson was an education ground breaker, persuading the legislature to make him the nation’s first mayor with charter school sponsoring authority, a power he used to seed new schools in the city and make a name for himself nationally as one of the few high-profile Democratic politicians supporting school choice.

After Ballard defeated Peterson in 2008, he kept pushing for charter schools, largely following Peterson’s education policies. Both mayors ruffled feathers with advocates of Indianapolis Public Schools and school choice skeptics, who view charter schools as hostile competitors to traditional public schools.

Hogsett sees himself fitting in somewhere between die-hard advocates of traditional public schools and the school choice and accountability approach embraced by Peterson and Ballard.

“I have been supportive of the good things Bart Peterson has done and this administration, Mayor Ballard’s administration, has done,” Hogsett said. “Generally speaking, if elected mayor, I would not advocate fundamentally shifting direction or rolling back the gains that have been made.”

New priorities for education

In fact, school choice is not at the top of the list of what Hogsett considered to be the biggest education issues facing the city. Neither is another recent hot topic — city support for preschool — or vexing questions like school funding, school accountability or private school vouchers, which have dominated much of the public debate about education in Indianapolis in recent years.

There are two big education issues on Hogsett’s mind.

“One is the quality of the teacher, and two is compensating them accordingly,” he said. “Those are the two most important issues in the short run. Collectively, we have to focus on quality of our teachers. We have to elevate the public’s appreciation for, and understanding of, the importance that teachers play in the overall success of our kids’ education, and pay them accordingly.”

As mayor, however, Hogsett acknowledged he would neither get a vote in the legislature, nor play a direct role in negotiating the contracts that decide how much teachers are paid.

“But I do think that, as mayor, I will fight at all times for the best quality of teachers that we can possibly encourage to make Indianapolis, and educational institutions here, their home and to fight to pay them for the important jobs that they do,” he said.

One way he suggests he’d help schools is by talking about them in a way he thinks will cause people to pay attention.

“I don’t intend to be an expert,” he said. “But I will convene, I will listen and I will act where appropriate and where asked. I’d like to serve to be a cheerleader for educational achievement and attainment here in Marion County and in the city of Indianapolis. It’s a level of engagement the city has never seen before.”

He also emphasized that he views working with schools as going beyond IPS.

“I think how I might be different than previous mayors is I intend to be fully engaged and immersed in how education is being delivered in all four corners of this county,” Hogsett said. “We do tend to focus on IPS, with good reason admittedly. But the mayor must not lose sight of the fact that there are 11 school corporations in this city. Each of them are worthy of the mayor’s time and attention.”

When it comes to IPS, Hogsett praised Ferebee and professed a desire to see what the school board — with three new board members just elected — can do.

“It would be premature of me to presume, ultimately, what results they’ll be able to achieve,” he said. “The ones I do know are all very quality, well meaning, gifted leaders in their own right. I think they will bring, hopefully, fresh perspectives to a difficult challenge.”

Even so, Hogsett said he was open to discussing the mayor playing a bigger role in the district, perhaps by appointing school board members some day. That was a proposed in 2011 by The Mind Trust, an organization founded by Peterson and David Harris, his charter school director, to push for educational change in the city.

But he doesn’t think there’s a need for that conversation yet. Maybe in a year or two.

“I would be willing, I guess, to consider a different type of governance,” he said. “Now, the prudent and responsible course is to allow people charged with that authority, directly, to do that good work and allow them to affect what changes they think are in the best interest of Indianapolis Public Schools and keep our fingers crossed and hope it works.”

A supporter of school choice

Of course, the mayor’s office already oversees more than 35 charter schools with more than 10,000 students, collectively the equivalent of a school district that would be bigger than almost half of the city’s 11 districts.

Hogsett said he likes the idea of charter schools in the city.

“I don’t think providing choice is ever a bad thing,” he said. “Promoting the opportunity for parents to have alternatives is good. I am very supportive of it.”

It’s not clear, however, if he would push to keep expanding charters in the same way that Ballard did. Ballard used city money to operate a charter school incubator in conjunction with The Mind Trust to help seed more schools.

Hogsett talked tough on charter school accountability, but was mildly critical of Ballard for schools that closed on short notice. In consecutive years, Ballard ordered The Project School to close for poor test scores and financial problems just weeks before classes started and persuaded Flanner House School’s board to close the school down shortly after the start of school in the wake of an ISTEP cheating scandal.

“Parents need to be given plenty of time to know, and the schools themselves be given time to reform … and improve the accountability of their performance,” Hogsett said. “Or, if they continue to fail, parents shouldn’t be noticed two, three or four weeks before the start of school that the school is going to be closed.”

Hogsett was less eager to discuss another big school choice program enrolling lots of kids in the city — a state-run voucher program that helps poor and middle class families pay private school tuition using public tax dollars. Vouchers, he said, were mostly beyond the scope of the mayor’s work, but he had kind words for the private schools that accept them.

“I support private education,” he said. “I support public charter education. I support traditional public education. It’s not so much the method of delivery. It’s ultimately how the kids are empowered by whatever system is being delivered. That’s ultimately what I am going to be most interested in.”

When pressed, he acknowledged he wasn’t a big fan of vouchers.

“I wouldn’t seek to expand vouchers,” Hogsett said. “If I err, I err on the side of public dollars going to public schools.”

Looking to education’s future

The public’s money is well spent, however, on preschool support for poor families, Hogsett said.

After a wave of summer violence, Ballard announced a crime fighting plan that included $50 million in public and private aid to poor families so they can pay tuition for their children to attend preschool, with the goal that crime would drop as better prepared children increasingly stayed in school and off the streets in the years ahead.

The plan was nearly derailed in a partisan fight over his plan to fund it by eliminating a homestead tax credit, which Democrats complained would cost school districts, and some homeowners, money. Hogsett backed the Democrats.

A compromise plan now calls for $40 million in preschool tuition help from the city and private foundations. The tax credit is off the table, but a funding mechanism for the plan has yet to be approved by the City-County Council.

“I am fully supportive of pre-K,” Hogsett said. “As a federal crime fighter I believe the earlier we can start kids in the right direction, making good choices with positive outcomes, the long term benefits of that investment are going to be magnified over and over and over several fold.”

That’s important, he said, because people make decisions about where to live based strongly on two factors: whether they feel safe and whether they have access to good schools.

“If we are not prioritizing the importance of quality education for all of our kids, we are not going to be able to continue to evolve in the direction Indianapolis has historically evolved,” Hogsett said. “That is getting to be a better place to live, a better place to work, a better place to recreate, a better place to grow. That’s why education will be a priority of my administration if I happen to be elected.”