Advocates of school choice and charter schools are fighting to preserve control of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, in a race that has attracted national attention and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

Supporters of the current administration are hoping to hold on to a thin majority, while challengers seeking more schools to be directly managed by the district see a chance to wrest control after seven years of charter-friendly policies.

With four seats on the seven-member board up for election, the outcome could easily shift the balance of power in the district. 

Nearly 40% of IPS students now attend innovation schools, which are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators. The city has become a model for communities seeking to embrace the “portfolio” approach, where the central office goes from only running its own schools to overseeing the quality of independently managed schools. 

Supporters of the district’s model, who believe it has improved school quality and attracted more families, are zealously working to maintain control of the board. Political action committees supporting school choice have spent more than $200,000 on the race.

The race is drawing large contributions from out-of-state donors. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $100,000 to RISE Indy, a new political action committee backing choice-friendly candidates, and Walmart heir Alice Walton gave $200,000 to the same group. 

That funding is helping to inundate voters with mailers, text messages, and social media advertisements in support of incumbents Venita Moore (District 2) and Diane Arnold (District 4), and newcomers Kenneth Allen (at-large) and Will Pritchard (District 1).

Even while advocates for more independently run schools are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, they are trying to downplay political motivations. 

Jasmin Shaheed-Young, who leads RISE, describes the group as committed to amplifying community voices. 

When asked if the group was created because IPS school board members who supported school choice lost seats in the 2018, Shaheed-Young said she created it because she wants to boost awareness of school board races. 

“I wanted RISE to be different in the sense of, let’s bring everyone together and let’s center students,” Shaheed-Young said. “Let’s stop talking about the us versus them. Let’s stop talking about governance model.”

The parent-organizing group Stand for Children Indiana, which often lobbies IPS to hand management of low-performing schools to charter operators, has reported spending about $49,000 on the school board election. 

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said that the focus on innovation schools is misplaced. The parents they work with are invested in improving failing schools, not in school type, he said. 

“They want a great public school, and they want the district to focus on delivering that great public education,” Ohlemiller said. “I think that that debate is driven by, frankly, more elites.”

Supporters believe that under the leadership of Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, the district has also taken steps to improve areas such as teacher retention, salaries, and diversity.

“There’s tremendous capacity right now and a lot of momentum toward positive change,” said Sarah TeKolste, an IPS teacher who helped found Teachers Alliance for Equitable Public Schools, a PAC that endorsed choice-friendly candidates. “And I think there are certain candidates who would not support that direction and who want to pause some of the progress that we’re making.”

Opponents of district-charter partnerships see a rare opportunity to win control of the school board. 

Candidates they endorsed won two spots on the IPS board in 2018. Now, advocates are hoping to win at least two more seats to stymie the expansion of innovation schools.

Jim Scheurich, a professor at IUPUI, believes the campaign this year is especially hard fought because supporters of the current administration are worried about losing control of the board. 

“I think they were extremely surprised that we took two seats last time around,” said Scheurich,  president of the IPS Community Coalition, a political group opposed to innovation schools. “Because they got scared last time, they have really upped their game.”

Four candidates for the IPS board are waging campaigns with backing from the Community Coalition: incumbent Elizabeth Gore (at-large), and newcomers Brandon Randall (District 1), Daqavise Winston (District 2), and Christina Smith (District 4). Although some of them are getting substantial funding from the state teachers union, their war chests are significantly smaller than their opponents’. 

After criticism from opponents for failing to register as a PAC, the Community Coalition filed campaign finance disclosures with the county: It reported spending $297. Scheurich said the group has no paid staff and virtually no budget. 

“If our message didn’t resonate, no one would be paying attention to us,” he said.

The vocal criticism of school choice in Indianapolis is part of a national trend, said Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, which opposes charter schools and endorsed candidates in the IPS race. The group didn’t donate to or spend money on the campaigns, but it did share its endorsements with members, Burris said.

“Republican Party support for charter schools is growing. Betsy DeVos is sort of the poster child and I think has actually galvanized resistance to charter schools,” Burris said. “You’re seeing a higher degree of skepticism about charter schools, especially in progressive communities, and especially in the Democratic Party.”

Those messages resonated with several people voting early outside the Indianapolis City-County Building in mid-October. 

Summer Daily, a software engineer, and Jon Maci, a college philosophy professor, said they were skeptical of charter and magnet schools, and they planned to vote for Brandon Randall and Elizabeth Gore.

When researching the IPS board before voting, they were looking for candidates who were “interested in supporting public interests and not private interests when it comes to education,” Daily said. 

Not even a global pandemic can distract from the debate over whether to partner with charter schools in IPS. But the school system is facing a host of other issues, including ones that are likely to dominate the school board’s agenda.

The focus on school choice is eclipsing more urgent topics, said Pritchard, who is running for a spot on the board and supports innovation schools. 

The school district was under financial pressure before the coronavirus, said Pritchard, an IPS parent who is on the district finance committee. Now, the pandemic has made its budget woes even more severe.

The first important job of the board will be tackling those issues, and it’s crucial to have board members who are up to task, Pritchard argued. “Your public outrage over innovation schools is going to mean nothing if you get on the board, and you’re faced with a huge financial gap that requires you to close five schools.”

Correction: Oct. 29, 2020: This story has been updated to clarify that Sarah TeKolste was referring to progress in areas besides the growth of innovation schools.