After years of antagonism, Indianapolis Public Schools is trying out a new approach to charter schools: cooperation.
The district, led by new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, is supporting two bills in the state legislature aimed at making it easier for school districts to partner with charter schools.
The first—House Bill 1063—would create new “compacts” between school districts across the state and charter schools. The compacts would give charter schools access to district services like busing and school buildings in exchange for letting districts count the charter schools’ test scores in their annual averages.
The bill passed the House with a unanimous 97-0 vote today, garnering support from Republicans, who have long favored charter schools, as well as Democrats, who have often been hostile to the independently run public schools.
Like Democrats, IPS officials have aggressively fought charter schools. But they also offered their support for the bill. And on Thursday, Ferebee himself will testify on behalf of a second bill that would steer the district into closer relationships with charter schools.
That bill—house Bill 1321, which only applies to Indianapolis Public Schools—would give the district some of the levers of control over charters that are now enjoyed by the schools’ sponsors, such as setting expectations for the schools’ academic performance levels. In exchange, the charter schools would be allowed to run existing IPS schools through contracts with the district or operate their own schools inside IPS buildings.
If House Bill 1321 is passed by the education committee Thursday, it could be up for a vote of the full House next week.
“We need every tool in the toolbox,” Ferebee said. “I’m looking to strengthen autonomy at the school level. I believe this is an opportunity to do so and to forge beneficial relationships.”
Both bills offer a similar covenant. The charter school gets services or resources from the district. In return, the district can count the test scores from those schools in its cumulative averages. The bills would also give IPS a degree of control over two factors that have vexed district officials: input into where some charter schools locate and whether they offer a quality program.
“I’d like to think IPS and any other district with high-achieving charter schools would want to work together,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, who authored House Bill 1063. “In this case, if the charter school doesn’t perform well, the district loses its incentive to partner with that charter school.”
The cooperative stance represents a departure from the way IPS has viewed charter schools in the past. Ferebee’s predecessor, former Superintendent Eugene White, often complained that charter school proponents were seeking an unrealistic “silver bullet” solution in promoting the schools as a way to improve education across the city.
In response to charter school growth, White embraced competition. He created charter-like magnet school options within IPS to attract students who might otherwise have left for charter schools and even sent IPS recruiters door-to-door to try to bring students who left the district back to IPS schools. As superintendent, when White went to the statehouse, it was often to testify against charter schools or efforts to expand them.
Ferebee said he holds a different view of school competition.
“I don’t think we have to operate in an environment of animosity with charter schools,” he said. “We can learn from, and with, each other. We vie for the same resources and serve the same students.”
The majority of IPS board members, four who were elected in 2012, campaigned on a promise that district schools would have more freedom from the central office and would be held more accountable for results in return. They picked Ferebee to replace White in part with an eye toward fresh thinking about competition with charter schools and other school choice options.
“This is the direction we intended to take,” said board member Gayle Cosby, one of the new board members from 2012, of the district’s support for the charter school bills. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. We just need to make sure these relationships are mutually beneficial.”
One challenge the bills aim to tackle is facilities. Under current law, charter schools receive no public dollars for facilities or transportation. They sometimes spend millions to build a school or thousands each month to rent one, taking away money that could otherwise be used for instruction.
At the same time, Ferebee argues that IPS suffers when charter schools locate close to the district’s own buildings. The charter school lures away students and the state dollars that go with them, creating empty space in the local neighborhood school.
“I definitely view it as an efficiency,” Ferebee said. “Look at facilities utilization. You have millions of dollars being poured into old warehouses and Toys R Us stores to turn them into schools. Is that best for our students?”
Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House Education Committee and authored House Bill 1321, said sometimes it might make more sense for two nearby schools to share a building, or for the charter school to instead manage a persistently failing school.
“In some cases we have a charter right across from a neighborhood school,” he said. “Hopefully they can work collaboratively to make sure we have programs that meet the needs of students.”
One potential hangup in the second bill, House Bill 1321, is a provision that would give hiring freedom to schools operated in partnership.
Gail Zaheralis, who lobbies at the statehouse for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the statewide union supports House Bill 1063 but opposes House Bill 1321 and will testify against it in the House Education Committee.
House Bill 1321 can be used to bring in outside management for schools rated a D or F for three years, according to ISTA’s analysis. Contracts with the outside management organization could not be less than five years, the analysis showed. District employees would have to switch to working for the outside group to stay at the school, giving up their union-protected jobs with IPS.
She likened it to the state’s take over of four IPS schools in 2012. She painted the bill as allowing what amounted to an IPS-led takeover of one of its own schools.
“Frankly, it appears to be another way to accelerate takeover by private, for-profit management companies–even when the data so far fails to demonstrate that this works,” Zeheralis said.
Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has yet to take a position on House Bill 1321.
IPS’s teachers union leaders are perturbed that they have not been invited to the table to discuss the bills.
“Nobody’s talked to us about that at all,” union President Rhondalyn Cornett said. “We need more information.”
Her predecessor, past President Ann Wilkins, interjected with a caution for Ferebee.
“Until they do discuss it with us, the answer is a no,” she said.
Despite their unanimous support for House Bill 1063, Democrats weren’t completely at ease with the move toward school district cooperation with charter schools.
“I’m lukewarm to it,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said. “I have not fully embraced it.”
Even so, Porter voted for House Bill 1063 and said he could be open to supporting House Bill 1321 if it will help Ferebee and IPS.
“It’s a new superintendent and he’s interested in looking at charters to see how to improve education,” Porter said. “The whole concept is that charters are public schools. Maybe he has a new direction. We have to trust him to do what he thinks is right.”
(NOTE: An earlier version of this story cited Rep. Robert Behning as saying union bargaining would be optional for schools operated in partnership under House Bill 1321. Bargaining for such schools is actually prohibited in the bill. Behning said he intended to reference current law regarding charter schools, not the bill.)