Future of Schools

Indiana has seen a burst of new charter schools since 2011 law

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students working at Tindley Accelerated Schools' middle school.

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

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.