The number of charter schools in Indiana has grown rapidly since a 2011 state law passed expanding authority to approve and oversee them to new sponsors, and the acceleration looks likely to continue over the next two years.
Up to 14 charter schools were approved in recent months to open this fall, if they can find buildings and overcome other start-up challenges.
Even coupled with another recent trend toward tougher oversight — four charter schools were closed down this year for poor performance or other problems — the net gain could push the number to 86 charter schools statewide next year.
That is a significant jump: just 49 charter schools were open statewide when the law expanding charter school sponsorship passed four years ago, meaning the potential gain equates to about 75 percent more charter schools.
Starting slow, gaining momentum
The first 10 charter schools opened in Indiana in 2002 after a years-long battle in the Indiana legislature ultimately produced a law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts.
For the first decade after 2002, an average of about five new charter schools opened each year, and schools rarely closed except in a few high-profile cases in which sponsors found they were seriously mismanaged. That was relatively slow growth when compared to neighboring states such as Ohio and Michigan, where far more charter schools opened each year.
But over the past three years, new Indiana charter schools have opened at almost twice the rate of the first decade: an average of about nine new charter schools per year.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office has expanded its stable of charter schools quickly in that time. In 2011, Ballard sponsored 18 charter schools. This year he sponsored 29 charter schools. One of those schools will close and another is converting to a private school.
The city could be sponsoring even more charter schools, but under Ballard and recently-departed Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, the city ramped up accountability and pushed low-scoring charter schools to close or merge with more successful schools.
In all, five mayor-sponsored charter schools that were open in 2011 have ceased operations.
“We focused on replication of things that worked and accountability for those that didn’t,” Kloth said. “We enforced high barriers to entry and true accountability for results.”
The faster pace for opening new charter schools is expected to continue statewide. Besides the 14 planned to open this fall among all nine Indiana sponsors, another seven are approved to open across the state in 2016 and 2017.
New sponsors emerge
Two new forces that are helping to drive the expansion are a direct result of the 2011 law: the Indiana State Charter School Board and three private universities that have become charter school sponsors.
Sponsors grant charter schools the ability to operate, monitor their performance and can close those that fall short of their promises.
Before 2011, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s two primary charter school sponsors, along with a handful of local school districts sponsoring just a few others. The legislature that year created the state charter board with the authority to sponsor new schools, and allowed private universities to sponsor charter schools as well.
While debating the 2011 bill, lawmakers who supported the idea often suggested well-known private universities such as Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. None of them has ever done so.
Instead, the three private colleges that are now active charter school sponsors are less well-known.
Trine University in Angola will oversee five schools next year in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis; Grace College in Winona Lake sponsors a school in Fort Wayne and a school in Dugger; and Calumet College of St. Joseph sponsors one school each in Hammond and Gary.
The state charter board also has aggressively approved new schools since its founding. Nine new charter schools approved by that board opened since 2012.
Closing schools that don’t measure up
One sponsor that has been a major force in Indiana since the dawn of charter schools — Ball State — has closed more schools than it opened over the past three years.
As a result, Ball State will oversee just 29 charter schools this fall — three fewer than it did two years ago.
In part, the university’s tougher approach was driven by deep criticism of Ball State that came in 2011 and 2012 for failing to take action against schools with low scores. Since then, the atmosphere has changed, said Bob Marra, who directs charter schools for Ball State.
In fact, earlier this spring, Marra was invited to speak about high quality charter school sponsoring along with representatives from Ballard’s office at a National Association of Charter School Authorizers event. The group is known as a strong advocate for closing low-scoring schools.
“I don’t think I would have been there if it wasn’t for the work we had done the last couple of years,” Marra said.
Even so, critics of the 2011 expansion of charter school sponsors have argued that the new law paved the way for “sponsor shopping,” a practice where low-scoring schools try to jump to new sponsors before they are shut down.
That has occurred in the last three years.
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 schools it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.
A law passed earlier this year aims to rectify that problem. House Bill 1636, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, requires that any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor must alert the current sponsor in writing.
The 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. But the bill does not prevent a new sponsor from taking on a school in danger of closing.
NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS IN INDIANA Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office (27 schools sponsored) New schools for 2015-16: Christel House DORS West in Indianapolis Tindley Genesis Academy in Indianapolis Indiana College Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East in Indianapolis Marion Academy in Indianapolis Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis New schools for 2016-17: Global Prep Academy in Indianapolis Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis New schools for 2017-18: A second Herron High School in Indianapolis Ball State University (28 schools sponsored) New schools for 2015-16: Mays Community Academy in Rushville Indiana State Charter School Board (9 schools sponsored) New schools for 2015-16: Carpe Diem Northwest in Indianapolis Carpe Diem Shadeland in Indianapolis Early Career Academy in Indianapolis Excel Center in South Bend Excel Center in Noblesville New schools for 2016-17: ACE Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis Global Leadership Academy in Indianapolis Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville New schools for 2017-18: Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville Trine University (3 schools sponsored) New schools for 2015-16: Career Academy Middle School in South Bend Success Academy Primary School in South Bend Grace College (1 school sponsored) New schools for 2015-16: Dugger Community School in Dugger Calumet College of St. Joseph (2 schools sponsored) No new schools planned Evansville Vanderburgh School District (2 schools sponsored) No new schools planned Daleville School District (1 school sponsored) No new schools planned Lafayette Public School District (1 school sponsored) No new schools planned