Indianapolis Public Schools is starting 2023 with seven school board commissioners who, for the first time since 2012, have all garnered support in recent elections from groups promoting charter schools and other policies associated with education reform.
The shift in the board’s makeup comes at a critical moment, right as the district implements its Rebuilding Stronger revitalization plan adopted unanimously by the board last year. One of the goals of that blueprint: competing with charter schools supported by those same groups, and which have been siphoning off the district’s students for years.
New board members Nicole Carey, Hope Hampton, and Angelia Moore took office on Monday, replacing outgoing members Evan Hawkins and the board’s last two union-backed candidates, Taria Slack and Susan Collins.
They join members Kenneth Allen, Diane Arnold, Venita Moore, and Will Pritchard, who collectively raised over $280,000 in in-kind and direct donations from political action committees for RISE Indy and Stand for Children Indiana in the 2020 election alone. Both groups also endorsed Carey, Hampton, and Moore.
To some, the new board makeup is inevitable, the result of the hundreds of thousands of dollars from PACs that first entered Indianapolis school board campaigns in 2012.
Those PACs are typically linked to groups that support policies often associated with education reform, such as principal autonomy and school choice, including charter schools.
The new board could mark the start of a regrettable era, said Jim Scheurich, president of the IPS Community Coalition, which is a strong critic of groups such as RISE and Stand for Children. Just one of the three board races was contested last year, which he attributes to the amount of money pumped into school board races, making a run for office less attractive.
“They’ve got all the money,” Scheurich said. “They have way too much money.”
But current and former board members say the reality is much different, and that decisions on the board’s decisions don’t boil down to simple pro-charter or anti-charter opinions.
“When you’re running for office and when you’re campaigning for candidates, these issues can seem a lot more cut and dry, a lot more simple, than when you’re on the board,” said board member Will Pritchard, who received more than $72,000 in direct and in-kind 2020 campaign support from Stand for Children’s PAC.
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Members of the new board say their decisions will be based on what’s best for students, not ideology.
New board member Nicole Carey, elected without opposition to represent District 5, said that there has not yet been a school system that has served students of color really well since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“I don’t believe that charter schools are the answer, and I don’t believe that the traditional way that we’ve served kids is the answer,” Carey said. “I think we still have to continue to look to do better for our kids.”
The limits of campaign cash
Campaign support from PACs may appear to influence school board members. But decisions made once candidates are on the board tell a more intricate story.
Board members are looking at the real world situation and not just arguing over ideas and ideology, said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University and co-author of the book “Outside Money in School Board Elections.”
“Ideas and ideology can be important, and in these national debates what’s driving a lot of the funding is these big war battles, Republican versus Democrat, red versus blue, reform versus non-reform,” Henig said. “But at the local level, especially in communities that built up charters and innovation schools of one kind or another over time, there’s a range of variation.”
Susan Collins, for instance, had a firm anti-charter platform when she ran for school board in 2018. She also opposed the concept of closing traditional district-run schools, following strong backlash to the IPS decision to close schools in 2017.
“My concern was the closing of schools and the encroachment of charter schools in the district that was pulling enrollment away from the district,” said Collins, who served one term on the board from 2019 to 2022.
But once elected to the board – with the help of $15,000 from the PAC linked with the Indiana State Teachers Association — her views shifted.
“In a way, I was a little more iconoclastic than I became over time,” she said. “I realized that the reality is that schools have to sometimes be closed — we’re top-heavy. And also the reality is that the charters are here, and you can’t kick them out, so that’s not going to happen.”
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Collins has also served on a board that, even though most of its members have been backed by charter-friendly groups, has not always seen eye to eye with those groups.
Perhaps the most significant of those disagreements has been about the board’s biggest initiative, Rebuilding Stronger. While the Mind Trust, RISE Indy, and Stand for Children all voiced concerns about the sweeping IPS overhaul, the board still approved it.
And in recent months, dozens of charter school parents and students have packed school board meetings to argue that charters should get a greater share of a proposed $413.6 million operating referendum. But so far, board members haven’t publicly supported them.
Candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana are not always going to agree with the organization, said Justin Ohlemiller, the organization’s executive director.
“We expect commissioners to listen and to ask good questions and to authentically engage with parents and make sure that there’s a respectful dialogue, back-and-forth. I think to that extent, that’s happened,” Ohlemiller said. “But to say that we expect commissioners to go along with every request parents are making — I don’t think anybody expects this.”
Black women now school board majority
In one important respect, the new school board has already made its mark: Four of the seven members are Black women, and five of the seven are people of color. In IPS, 80% of the students are nonwhite or multiracial.
That’s something Jasmin Shaheed-Young, the founder of RISE Indy, is quite proud of.
The group funds candidates who agree with its policy priorities, including increased school autonomy and school choice.
The nonprofit also runs a Circle City Leaders program that trains people interested in bettering the city’s education by running for office. Four of the seven members of the board have been through the program.
“So much of this is demystifying the political process,” Shaheed-Young said. “It has been something that has been reserved for really white men.”
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The new board members have nuanced hopes of their own for the future. And while they have expressed concerns about Rebuilding Stronger — after initially opposing the first draft of the plan — they are still tasked with ushering in the overhaul.
Carey sees herself as a bridge-builder, and wants to help create a vision of what IPS will look like in 10 years that has community support. She understands the charter school community’s push for more funding from the operating referendum, noting that it seems unfair for charter school parents to pay a property tax increase that won’t go to their child’s school.
She also thinks the two ballot measures voters could consider this year, which seek a total of $823.6 million over several years for IPS capital and operating expenses, aren’t big enough. At the same time, she understands inflation is a growing concern for families.
“We have to find that middle ground of how do we properly fund an equitable education and what’s too much?” she said. (New board member Hope Hampton could not be reached for comment.)
Angelia Moore, meanwhile, said she will always prioritize equity and communication with her constituents.
Being supported by certain groups does not mean a board member will always agree with those groups, Moore noted.
“We’re still individuals,” she said. “We still each have one vote.”
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.