Jasmin Shaheed-Young has a vision for a political organization that focuses on education — while avoiding deeply contested, emotionally fraught debates over school choice.
Shaheed-Young says she wants the new political action committee she founded, known as RISE Indy, to be driven by community priorities and focus on unifying issues, such as improving student achievement, rather than the debate between charter and traditional public schools.
“There’s so much rhetoric around what is the school model? Who is funding what? But kids are continuing to fail,” said Shaheed-Young, a former vice president for a real estate development firm and Democratic fundraiser. “How do we approach looking at this as a quality of life issue — so everyone feels like they need to do something and there’s not this apathy?”
Although its agenda is not yet fleshed out, Shaheed-Young’s fledgling political group is poised to play a significant role in politics because of its close ties to influential school choice advocates. But those same connections mean that it will be hard for the group to avoid the volatile politics that have come to define Indianapolis Public Schools board elections.
Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said that there are few issues around education that are likely to be “non-controversial,” since they are often tied to funding choices. “As soon as you do that, you have stepped into a debate,” Downs said.
The gap in passing rates on state tests between students of color and their white peers, for example, has drawn renewed focus from many Indianapolis education advocates in recent months. But while many people share the goal of improving schools, there is no consensus around the best approach to do so. For voters who care about education policy, issues such as whether to partner with charter schools and whether to close schools are divisive — and so is the battle to steer the future of the state’s largest district.
RISE, which began bringing on staff in June, is focused on meeting with residents and community leaders, Shaheed-Young said. It will lobby the Indiana legislature, but she said she did not know what role it will play in state and local elections or if it will endorse or support school board candidates. Shaheed-Young said the policies it will throw its weight behind are also a work in progress.
“We are the convener to bring all these people together,” Shaheed-Young said. “But the community will really guide our actions and how we are approaching this work.”
Getting new people involved in education issues, however, is an uphill battle. When RISE held a meeting at the Martin Luther King Community Center in September, the three community members who showed up were outnumbered by the staffers and consultants for the group.
One of the attendees was Brandi Davis, a mother of seven with three children enrolled at School 43. Davis didn’t focus on the debate about school choice or other hot-button issues. She brought up her concerns that her older children were not prepared for college, and she said she wanted all children in the district to have the chance to learn a second language beginning in kindergarten.
“I just feel like some the — I don’t want to call them luxuries — but some of the opportunities are not given to all of the children,” Davis said.
For some observers, however, RISE’s efforts to sidestep controversy seem disingenuous, and its agenda already appears clear based on its board. It features high-profile charter school advocates, including former Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson, who brought charter schools to Indianapolis and now oversees an Indianapolis charter network, and Republican businessman and philanthropist Al Hubbard, who was once considered a leading candidate to serve under Secretary Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s certainly not an effort to draw all of the community into conversation and agreement,” said Jim Scheurich, president of the IPS Community Coalition, an education group that is critical of the current IPS administration and partnerships with charter schools.
Supporters of partnerships with charter and non-profit school managers, known as innovation schools, have held control of the Indianapolis Public Schools board for several years. Those schools are controversial, however, in part because teachers that work at them are not represented by the district union.
Elections for seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools board have become hotly contested in part because of the influence of political groups. Candidates who support innovation schools have been backed by Stand for Children, a parent organizing group that also plays a key role in elections, sending out mailers and hiring campaign staffers. But Stand has drawn a backlash from some people, in part because it does not disclose much of its election spending.
In the most recent election, a new player became influential in the school board race. Two school board candidates backed by the IPS Community Coalition and the teachers union defeated incumbents to win seats. That did not tip the balance of power among leaders on the seven-member board, but if other charter school critics win seats in the future or current board members lose faith in innovation schools, the district could turn against the partnerships.
Scheurich sees RISE as a response from charter allies to losing at the ballot box — and as a strategy to maintain control of the district. “This is another effort to get people to support what they are doing without changing what they are doing,” he said.
Shaheed-Young says the group’s origin is closer to home. The daughter of retired Marion County Superior Court Judge David Shaheed, she became involved in politics when he was running for office. RISE is a way for her to focus her political efforts to “really help benefit the least among us, and that’s kids,” she said.
In her personal life, Shaheed-Young is surrounded by educators. Her husband, Ahmed Young, is chief of external affairs and general counsel for Indianapolis Public Schools and previously led the mayor’s office overseeing charter schools.
Two of Shaheed-Young’s sisters are also influential in Indianapolis education. Mariama Shaheed is the founder of Global Prep Academy, one of the first charter schools to overhaul an IPS campus through the innovation network. Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo used to work at The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that supports charter and innovation schools. She left to become a partner at the City Fund, a national group with a similar mission.
Shaheed-Young’s connections and the backgrounds’ of several RISE board members raise the question of whether it is essentially a political organ of The Mind Trust. Leaders of both groups say that, while some supporters may overlap, they are not connected.
The Mind Trust does not “have any interest or ability to influence” what RISE Indy does, said Brandon Brown, CEO of the nonprofit. “At the same time, we applaud Jasmin and her courageous leadership,” he said. “I don’t think that this organization represents anything other than another voice that is going to advocate on behalf of kids.”
Shaheed-Young declined to say where the group’s funding so far came from, because she said they are still in the initial stages of fundraising. The PAC must disclose its donations to candidates — a disclosure in October showed a $20,000 donation to Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett’s reelection campaign — but not all of its fundraising.
Former Mayor Peterson, who helped found The Mind Trust and served on its board until October 2018, said that if the nonprofit were interested in forming a political arm, it would have done so openly.
While Shaheed-Young said she is looking to community residents to drive the PAC’s direction, Peterson is clear that he joined the board because he believes RISE will advocate for charter schools. “I am going to be supportive of just about any organization that supports the particular type of education alternatives that I care most about — which is predominantly charter schools,” he said.
Peterson is one of several RISE board members who have ties to charter schools, including businessman Bill Shrewsberry, who also sits on The Mind Trust’s board and previously served on both the city and state charter boards, and Gary Borden, managing director of Public School Allies, the political arm of a national group that supports charter schools and the portfolio model.
Shaheed-Young argues that the PAC is also incorporating views from a wider swath of the community through a 26-member advisory council, which includes teachers, parents, and advocates. The board provides funding and support, she said, but the advisory council helps the group connect with the community and stay focused on improving student outcomes.
“So how do we stay above the fray?” she said. “We continue to go to our advisory council to ensure that … we’re on mission.”