School Matters

Former Democratic mayor raises big money for GOP


A political action committee chaired by a former Democratic mayor of Indianapolis is one of the top contributors to the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee.

The PAC, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, was created in April and is chaired by Bart Peterson. He was mayor of Indianapolis from 1999 to 2007 and is now president and CEO of Christel House International, a nonprofit that operates three charter schools in Indianapolis. The PAC’s treasurer is Caryl Auslander, former vice president of education for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

The PAC has contributed $150,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston, according to campaign finance reports. That’s more than almost any other donor with a couple of exceptions.

It has also given $20,000 to the Indiana Senate Republican campaign committee and $17,000 to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s political action committee. It gave $200,000 to RISE Indy, a PAC that supports Indianapolis school board candidates who favor charter-like “innovation” schools.

While the group calls itself Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, none of the $400,000 that it reported raising came from Hoosiers. It received $200,000 each from two wealthy supporters of charter schools: John Arnold, a former gas trader and hedge fund manager from Texas, and Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, from California.

Why is Hoosiers for Great Public Schools backing Republicans? Peterson said the issue is charter schools.

“I am an unabashed supporter of charter schools and have been since my first campaign for mayor,” he told me in a text-message statement. “Charter schools are underfunded, and the funding gap between public charter schools and traditional district schools is getting much worse.”

Peterson said he is involved in efforts to support candidates who “support equitable funding for charter schools” regardless of political party. He didn’t elaborate, but he is on the board of RISE Indy, which gave $40,000 last year and $8,000 this year to the campaign of current Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat.

Charter schools had bipartisan support when Indiana first established them in 2002. But in the past decade, Republicans have aggressively expanded school choice, adding a private-school voucher program, while many Democrats have grown skeptical. Peterson has stayed on board with the strategy. As mayor, he set up a robust system for authorizing and overseeing charter schools in the city. He helped found The Mind Trust, which supports charter schools and encouraged Indianapolis Public Schools to partner with charter and innovation schools.

It’s widely understood in Indiana that donating to campaigns can help ensure access, so it makes sense to curry favor with Republicans. House Republicans have a 67-33 advantage over Democrats, and the GOP is all but certain to keep control of the House, Senate and governor’s office.

For Peterson, the contributions also carry on a legacy from Christel House founder Christel DeHaan, who died in June. DeHaan donated generously to Indiana political campaigns, mostly but not entirely to Republicans. Her last contribution was $60,000 in June to the House Republican Campaign Committee.