Few people realize just how little influence mayors, including me, have when it comes to education. While the idea behind this formal separation (to keep politics out of the school system) is noble, it can be very frustrating for an executive who desires to improve schools but whose hands are legally tied. That's why I support Indiana House Bill 1002, which would expand the authority of mayors to establish charter schools in Indiana.
Hammond provides the perfect illustration of why this bill is needed. Over the past seven years, we have made great strides in attracting new development, reducing the city's crime rate and implementing programs such as our award-winning College Bound Scholarship Program. Still, families continue to move from Hammond because of discontent with the quality of education in Hammond's public high schools. Yes, there are excellent private schools in Hammond, but their tuition costs and religious affiliation prevent many from taking advantage of this alternative. As mayor, I have always been concerned about the migration of families out of Hammond and have always felt it was my obligation to do whatever I could to ensure a quality education. Regardless of economic status, parents who care about their children's education deserve a choice.
In 2006, I responded to the needs and demands of local residents by beginning the process of establishing a charter school in Hammond. Back then, I naively thought it would be a relatively simple process. I was wrong. Even with the strong support of Purdue University Calumet and Ball State University, it took almost three years of diligent effort for us to receive a charter. As we proudly opened the Hammond Academy of Arts and Science last year, everyone involved felt it had been a hard-won victory.
There is no reason that establishing charter schools in Indiana should take so long. Despite arguments to the contrary, charter schools do not undermine local public education. If anything, they serve to showcase how new educational methods and approaches can be applied successfully. Charter schools also maintain independence from political influence because they are established as nonprofit corporations, with their own boards and governance. Although I proposed and supported a charter school in Hammond, I exercise no more control over charter school operations than I do our public schools.
After having fought so hard to build a charter school in Hammond, I am pleased a bill is pending that would make the fight easier for other mayors. House Bill 1002 would empower localities to decide when and where a charter school is needed.
A delay of several years can mean hundreds of children deprived of the opportunity to replace the educational status quo. Under HB 1002, red tape would be replaced by expedient approval.
We cannot afford to continue the present chartering process that delays positive educational change for our students. After all, who knows better what a city needs than the people who live there?
Thomas McDermott Jr. is mayor of Hammond. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.