When asked to name the most important steps that the city of Indianapolis has taken to improve the lives of people in poverty, Indianapolis’ current mayor and past three mayors all pointed to one “game-changer”: education.

“Pre-K would be one of them,” Mayor Joe Hogsett said Thursday in front of corporate, philanthropic, and community leaders.

“Yes!” someone in the audience chimed in. “Amen!”

Hogsett, a Democrat in his first term, had named a signature effort of his Republican predecessor, Greg Ballard, who launched Indianapolis’ new pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. He and Ballard also held up the city’s charter schools — pioneered by Democrat Bart Peterson — as another example of expanding opportunities for low-income families.

“He literally gave thousands of kids a better opportunity to succeed in life by having a very strong political will to do what he considered to be the right thing,” Ballard said. “That was a game-changer for the city and continues to this day.”

Hogsett, Ballard, Peterson, and Stephen Goldsmith — four Indianapolis mayors, two Democrats and two Republicans — appeared Thursday on a panel on fighting poverty, held by the United Way of Central Indiana, the Indy Chamber, and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee.

The panel touched on the city’s high levels of race and income segregation concentrated in the urban core and low rates of upward economic mobility. One landmark study has shown that Indianapolis is one of the toughest cities for people born in poverty to move up on the economic ladder.

“Think about the opportunities our children have compared to the children in those [impoverished] neighborhoods,” said Goldsmith, who was mayor from 1992 to 2000.

The mayors discussed the challenges of the city’s public transportation options and food deserts. Among the bright spots— though still ongoing efforts— they named neighborhood revitalization and education efforts.

“So long as substantial numbers of young men and women don’t graduate from high school, let alone college, we’re going to continue this issue,” Goldsmith said.

The event fostered a spirit of crossing political party lines to unite behind the issue of addressing poverty.

Goldsmith, a Republican who struggled to intervene in and improve the troubled Indianapolis Public Schools during his terms as mayor, lauded Peterson’s education strategy: “Thank goodness he was successful at IPS reform, because I failed at everything that I did in the education area.”

The mayor’s office now oversees 36 charter schools at 43 campuses in Indianapolis, including several that are part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools strategy. About 15,500 students attend those charter schools.