There was a primary election in Indianapolis last week. You may have missed it.
Only 12 percent of registered voters went to the polls. But a high turnout wasn't expected. That's because this was a local election and, even though local elections tend to have the greatest impact on peoples' everyday lives, such elections rarely generate much popular interest.
You could call this democracy's dirty little secret. People talk a good game about the importance of representation, but when it comes to actually voting for who will make decisions about the quality of life in our city, we have a way of finding other things to do.
A proposal to make the mayor responsible for Indianapolis Public Schools flies in the face of this sorry situation. The proposal was put forth by a local think-tank called The Mind Trust, dedicated to school improvement and co-founded by former mayor Bart Peterson and David Harris, the man Peterson hired to be first director of charter schools.
The Mind Trust made news last week when it received a $2.5 million grant from the Lilly Foundation in support of Grow What Works, a set of initiatives intended to put more teachers in inner-city classrooms, help students with college admissions, and provide summer school programs so that kids retain what they've worked on during the regular school year.
All of these programs are easy to support. But The Mind Trust's decision to challenge the governing structure of our school system is raising eyebrows. Dr. Eugene White, superintendent of IPS, has been particularly discomfited, since he's also on The Mind Trust board.
"I've been involved with The Mind Trust from the very beginning," he told The Star. "But with The Mind Trust now involved in the political process, it's a very challenging position for me to be in."
Any parent who has ever taken IPS up on its pro forma invitations to participate in the educational process, only to find that administrators want volunteer assistance, and not ideas, will hear a familiar note in Dr. White's complaint. It seems Dr. White is fine with The Mind Trust as long as it bolsters his efforts. Not so much when it begins looking at larger structural issues like administrative accountability.
That's where mayoral control of the schools comes in. Practically everyone agrees that the quality of our public schools is key to Indianapolis' prosperity. People have been complaining about it for 20 years or more.
During this time, various experiments have been tried at the margins of IPS, including, most notably, the development of magnet and charter schools. Many of these programs have been successful in making marvelous differences in the lives of kids.
But too many of the lessons learned in these schools have not been implemented across the entire system and, in the meantime, total IPS enrollment has fallen to below 40,000 students.
The anti-urban bias of Indiana's state legislature hasn't helped matters. Nor has the tendency of so many of us to flee to the suburbs when the first baby comes home.
Meanwhile, we continue, in the name of "local control," to perpetuate a school system with a board that's elected as a kind of afterthought.
Here's a pop quiz: How many members of the IPS school board can you name without using Google?
Most of us would fail this test. Yet, in spite of the fact that most of us say that schools are vital to the city's future, we continue to blindly vote for school board members we know little or nothing about.
This is not to say that school board members don't work hard or take a frightful amount of unwarranted abuse. It does, however, mean that when things go wrong it is very difficult to know who's responsible.
Mayoral control of schools is not a silver bullet. They tried it in Chicago with scant success. But in a system the size of IPS — not too big to be nimble if it has to be — an empowered mayor might make a difference. And isn't that what political leadership should be about?
It is telling that Bart Peterson pitched this idea into the mix as we head into the city's next mayoral campaign. As mayor, Peterson hung his hat on charter school development and didn't openly stump for mayoral control of IPS. That may be because his predecessor, Stephen Goldsmith, took a licking when he tried floating the idea.
Now Mayor Greg Ballard tells The Star that "it's not going to happen." Ballard, apparently, would rather continue to see the state-sanctioned hollowing out of IPS through new voucher and charter legislation. It's no doubt better for a sitting mayor to pass the buck about city schools than take responsibility for them.
Which, come to think of it, applies to the rest of us, as well. As long as 88 percent of us don't show up for local elections, anybody can be in charge.