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New state charter board members are asking tough questions

Carpe Diem Meridian.
Carpe Diem Meridian.
Hayleigh Colombo

One of Indiana’s top charter school officials had just begun talking when the questions started coming fast.

Michelle McKeown, the state’s charter school policy director, was addressing the Indiana charter school board about three state-sponsored charter schools that are up for renewal next year and some of those school have been struggling.

One school — Carpe Diem Meridian charter school — earned its second straight D grade from the state this year for low test scores. It also missed its enrollment target, bringing in less per student in state aid than expected.

The board had sharp questions for McKeown: How will the state address these schools’ financial troubles? What factors would be used to rate their academics? How did they compare to other schools on state tests? Could an outside agency be invited to review the school?

“It’s important for us to look at the entire picture here and understand more than their overall grade,” said the board’s new president, Karega Rausch. “Lets also look at all the other things that are happening.”

There are a lot of new faces on the board — five new members have joined the seven member panel over the last year. The board has also seen big changes on the staff including the arrival of a new executive director.

Both board members and staff are well connected in Indiana’s education policy scene.
The new executive director, James Betley, was Gov. Mike Pence’s education policy adviser. McKeown, who is a lawyer and has a doctorate in education policy, previously advised the Indiana State Board of Education as its attorney.

Rausch was reappointed to the board last year after a hiatus. He was the city’s charter school director under former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard before joining the state charter board. He’s since earned a doctorate in education and now works at the National Association for Charter School Authorizers.

The other newcomers to the board are:

  • Kreg Battles, a teacher and former Democratic state legislator from Vincennes who served on the House Education Committee.
  • Kristin Reed, a consultant who formerly worked as a policy and research coordinator for the Indiana Department of Education.
  • DeLyn Beard, a teacher and eLearning coordinator for the Evansville city school district who serves on the board of directors for the district’s teachers union.
  • Josh Owens, a business professor at Butler University who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public School Board in 2014.

It’s no surprise that the new board was asking tough questions, Rausch said. “Part of that is natural …Part of it is the personalities of the board members. It’s a good thing.”

The state charter board was created by the legislature in 2011 with the goal of expanding charter schools and creating a new option for people looking to open new schools. Before changes to state law that year only public universities, school districts and the mayor of Indianapolis had authority to sponsor, or authorize, charter schools.

The board, along with a handful of private universities that now sponsor charters, has helped accelerate the growth of charter schools in Indiana. The state charter board now sponsors 20 schools statewide. The number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled in five years to more than 80.

All the new faces have brought a lot of change in a short time, but the timing is good, Rausch said. The state charter board later this year will craft a new three- to five-year strategic plan that it hopes to put in place starting in 2017. Next fall, the board will face decisions for the first time about whether schools it has sponsored will be renewed.

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