Local | January 13, 2014

Indiana charter school backers fret about losing movement’s edge

Alarm bells went off among Mayor Greg Ballard’s staff Dec. 3 when Virginia-based Imagine Schools issued an arcane press release announcing its Imagine-West charter school in Indianapolis would be overseen by Trine University rather than by Ball State University.

To the mayor’s staff, the shift in “charter authorizer” was a way for Imagine-West to duck accountability that sets dangerous precedent that could lead to lower-performing charter schools across the state.

“True accountability is necessary for the sustainability of education reform,” said Jason Kloth, Ballard’s deputy mayor for education.¬†For all the controversy around them, charter schools in Indiana have posted better student performance than their peers in most other states, according to state-by-state analysis by Stanford University.

The key reason, Stanford’s researchers said, is that the entities that authorize charter schools have done a better job of not letting bad schools open in the first place and, when necessary, closing poor-performing schools.

That credit falls mostly to the Indianapolis mayor, who oversees 25 K-12 charter schools, most of which are performing well. The performance of schools approved by Ball State has been mixed, but the university has been trying to clean up its portfolio by closing the worst of the bunch.

That is, after all, the basic bargain of charter schools: The privately run, but publicly funded entities are given freedom from some state regulations in exchange for stronger accountability; in other words, they can be closed down by their authorizer.

In theory. In practice, poor-performing charter schools are finding ways to live on. Of the seven schools Ball State marked for closure in January last year, four are still operating, either as charter schools or as private schools accepting public vouchers.

The trend threatens to erase the performance edge Indiana’s charter schools have enjoyed over their public and charter school¬†peers in other states, according to David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an education reform group based in Indianapolis.

“I’m worried that we’re going to have bad schools operating. I’m also worried about it damaging the brand of charters in Indianapolis,” said Harris, who was Indianapolis’ first director of charter schools after such schools were legalized by the Legislature in 2001.