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Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis will close at the end of this year.

Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis will close at the end of this year.

Scott Elliott

Bill to limit ‘charter shopping’ passes Indiana House

Concerns about low-scoring charter schools that avoid sanctions by switching to new sponsors are behind a bill that passed the Indiana House today, but it would not block those moves entirely.

House Bill 1636 is aimed at stopping “charter shopping,” a practice by which some charter schools with failing grades have found new sponsors just before their sponsors — called “authorizers” in state law — moved to close them.

“We need more accountability for charter authorizers,” said Brandon Brown, who oversees charter schools for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, one of the state’s biggest sponsors. “We need more transparency and we need a clear vision for authorizing.”

The bill, which passed the House 82 to 12, requires any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor to alert the current sponsor in writing.

The bill was co-authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis.

Their goal is to ensure that sponsors know when schools they oversee seek either to change to a new sponsor or start another charter school with a different sponsor. The two sponsors should exchange information so both know if the school is switching oversight or opening a new school, Moed said.

That way the new sponsor will know if there are problems or concerns, he said.

“This is making sure that, when an authorizer approves a charter school, they are held accountable for the progress of those students,” Moed said.

Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s only active sponsors for the decade since charter schools debuted in Indiana.

But a 2011 law added a third major charter sponsor — a state charter school board that can sponsor new schools — and also expanded sponsoring authority to private, non-profit colleges along with public universities. Ballard, Ball State and the state charter board all back House Bill 1636.

While debating the 2011 bill that expanded sponsorship, supporters often suggested well known private universities like Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. Instead, it was much smaller and lower-profile private colleges that became sponsors: Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.

The expectation in 2011 also was that new sponsors primarily would start new schools. In fact, legislators at the time explicitly said the goal was not to allow low-scoring charters to escape sanctions by “shopping around” for a new sponsor when accountability — such as being closed down for failing to meet their goals — loomed.

But in some cases, that’s what has happened.

Three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades — Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis and Charter School of the Dunes in Gary — managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close. Timothy L. Johnson Academy and Imagine Life Science Academy West are now sponsored by Trine University and Charter School of the Dunes by Calumet College.

In some cases, it surprised Ball State to learn a school it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.

“I don’t want to say its bad to shop around, but I would like to see more sharing of information and communication,” said Bob Marra, who oversees the charter schools Ball State sponsors.

Under the bill, private colleges also could not simply begin sponsoring a charter school, as they can now. They would have to register with the Indiana State Board of Education first.

The bill requires the state board to evaluate charter school performance every five years.

One other provision would allow charter schools, which generally select students by a lottery if there is more demand than seats, to give preference to the school’s founders, employees and board members as long as those children don’t exceed 10 percent of the school.

Some charter school proponents argue stronger rules around sponsors would make charter schools stronger.

“For the health of the broader school movement it’s important only quality charter schools are able to operate,” said Janet McNeal, principal of Indianapolis’ Herron High School, a charter school, testifying last week in the House Education Committee. “Without high-quality authorizing, too many children will continue to be in low-performing schools.”