With growing national rancor over education, US mayors have the opportunity to lead
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The education policy discourse has grown increasingly toxic in Washington, exposing deepening divides over issues ranging from K-12 funding to school choice.

This time of federal deadlock offers a new reminder that our nation’s mayors must take greater ownership of education.

Mayors have stepped out on other prominent issues recently where the federal government has balked, most notably on climate change. Now they should leverage their unique position as the leaders closest to the people to move past the partisan federal debates on education and drive change in their communities’ K-12 systems.

Mayors are well-positioned because their proximity to the most important decisionmakers — those who lead local school districts — allows them to craft customized policy solutions that fit the local environment and build the local implementation strategies that federal policy changes so often lack.


And, of course, states, counties, and cities — not the federal government — control 90 percent of our country’s education spending.

At a time when public and private school performance is in the national spotlight, it’s important to note that mayors with the authority to create or influence the creation of schools are uniquely accountable if those schools don’t perform.

Voters can express their discontent to the city’s most visible elected official by contacting City Hall or by voting for change in the next election. Most parents and other constituents in big cities have no idea who their elected school board members are.

If visibility on a tough issue sounds like a disincentive for mayors to take ownership, consider the central role that schools play in city residents’ quality of life and neighborhood vitality. By taking on education, mayors can improve outcomes on everything from public safety to economic development. And no one becomes a mayor if they are the type that shies away from a challenge.

Mayors understand the needs, the civic resources and the subtle aspects of history and culture that make education innovation possible. And they have ample resources to drive change: the power to convene community stakeholders, staff expertise and access to top education experts.

Mayors can drive education change in myriad ways. Among the most powerful is serving as direct authorizers of public charter schools, which are run independently from school districts, putting principals in charge of key decisions and creating heightened accountability for results.

This spring, the Kentucky cities of Louisville and Lexington became the third and fourth communities in the nation where the mayor has the ability to authorize charter schools. Sixteen years ago, Indianapolis became the first — and our success with education innovation over the years since proves that it’s an idea worth exploring in other municipalities.

I and my two successors as mayor of Indianapolis led the creation and evolution of a charter-school sector that’s delivering strong results for students. Three separate Stanford University studies have found that students in Indianapolis’ mayor-sponsored charter schools  are meaningfully outperforming their peers in the city’s largest school district.

What’s more, the creation of strong charter schools in Indianapolis has helped cultivate a broader city-wide ecosystem focused on dramatically improving public education. As an outgrowth of the charter school initiative, my charter schools director created The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has fostered an unprecedented collaboration between the city’s largest school district and charter schools.

And, as part of their partnership, The Mind Trust, the Mayor’s office, and Indianapolis Public Schools are now launching new district schools that operate with charter-like freedoms and accountability while having access to the resources of a large school system.

While federal education debates increasingly fall along partisan lines, Indianapolis’ mayoral leadership on education proves that city leaders can transcend political divides. I am a Democrat who was succeeded by a Republican who was in turn succeeded by a Democrat.

We have advanced education innovation in Indianapolis even further with each change of administration.

Our nation’s federal system allows state and local governments to make the vast majority of decisions on education, empowering them to act as laboratories for innovation.

There’s never been a better moment than now for our nation’s mayors to take advantage of this by truly leading on education, and changing the lives of the millions of children in our country who need and deserve better educational opportunities.

Bart Peterson is a past two-term mayor of Indianapolis and former senior executive for Eli Lilly and Company.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.