Future of Schools

Charter school sponsor group ranks Indiana's charter law No. 1 in the U.S.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The number of charter schools in Indiana will reach 100 this fall.

Indiana’s tougher new standards for charter schools have helped make the state one of the best in the nation for ensuring quality charter schools, a trade group reports.

The state landed the No. 1 ranking among 43 states — tied with Nevada — on a new analysis by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that assessed charter school laws across the country.

NACSA, which has called for charter schools to be shut down if they don’t perform, ranked states by how well their laws promote school oversight.

States at the bottom of the ranking, like Kansas and Virginia, have “moribund” charter laws that produce little accountability for charter schools, the group found.

But the group praised new laws that Indiana has enacted over the last three years, saying they’ve made the state one of the nation’s best for charter school oversight.

“Indiana’s charter school work has been smart,” said Karega Rausch, who lives in Indianapolis and works as Chicago-based NACSA’s vice president of research and evaluation. “It has learned from some of the success and challenges of other states. We have taken a smart growth approach in that we are interested in providing quality options for kids but just growth hasn’t been the driving factor.”

NASCA, a trade group for charter school sponsors, is known for being among the biggest advocates for tough accountability for charter schools.

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has at times been critical of school choice programs, was skeptical of the state’s No. 1 ranking but agreed that more accountability for schools is better for kids.

“We want children to be in good schools,” she said. “I’m always for increased accountability. I really don’t care about the category of school.”

Rausch, a former charter school director for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, said the state’s tough new accountability rules have translated into results for kids. He pointed to a Stanford University study that ranked Indiana charter schools above their peers in other states. The study said students who went to charter schools often did better than similar students in the traditional public schools they otherwise would have gone to. Overall, charter school test scores are well below the state average, however.

“I don’t think anybody would say any of our schools in terms of scale are where they need to be yet,” Rausch said. “Our state’s approach toward charter schooling has been wise. We have seen it not as an ‘end all, be all’ to providing quality education but as vitally important.”

Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University were the only active charter school sponsors in Indiana. School districts and other state universities had the ability to offer charters but had mostly declined to exercise it. Ball State and the mayor’s office were choosy. For the first decade of Indiana’s charter school experience, the mayor and Ball state turned down more than three-quarters of applicants seeking to open new schools.

But some legislators thought charter schools were growing too slowly. Hoping to see more charter schools in the state, lawmakers changed the law in 2011 to create a state charter school board that could authorize charter schools. It also extended charter sponsoring authority to private, nonprofit colleges as well as public universities. The new law encouraged small, low-profile private colleges to become sponsors including Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.

But sponsors in Indiana now must monitor their charter schools more closely than in some other states.

Over the last three years, lawmakers have worked to tighten rules for sponsors.

A 2013 law requires sponsors to close F-rated charter schools after three years. The new law also gives the Indiana State Board of Education authority to reduce the fees sponsors can collect from charter schools and sponsors can now be stripped of their oversight authority if children’s needs aren’t being met in a school.

These new laws have limited the “sponsor shopping” some schools had attempted when the state first expanded the number of charter school authorizers.

The practice involved failing schools switching authorizers to avoid consequences for poor performance.

For example, three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close.

Rausch praised Indiana for pushing transparency in charter school as a good “first step” to ending sponsor shopping, but noted that schools could have legitimate reasons for changing sponsors.

“There could be reasons for that and those reasons may need to be explored,” he said. “But [charter schools] should have to come before the state board and their authorizer and justify it.”

Earlier this year, a new law changed the rules so private colleges could not simply begin sponsoring charter schools if they choose. Instead, they must register with the Indiana State Board of Education, which can now evaluate charter school performance every five years.

The 2015 law 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 goal is to assure that the new sponsor understands the school’s history and seeks input from the previous sponsor before taking over a school.

The next step, Rausch said, is for Indiana to better define how it measures the performance of unusual charter schools, such as those that serve exclusively special education students, juvenile criminal offenders or children with drug and alcohol problems.

Earlier this year, the state board decided against sanctions for two such charter schools despite poor test scores. Rausch said the state needs guidelines for judging such schools if they are to receive exemptions from the state’s A to F grading consequences.

“There are certainly special circumstances that make our current accountability system difficult for some schools,” he said. “But simply saying we serve a different population of kids therefore the accountability system doesn’t work is incomplete.”

There are ways to judge all schools, Rausch said.

“A responsible authorizer should not simply say the state system doesn’t work, he said. “They should have their own rigorous system that says ‘these are the indicators we expect them to succeed on.’ There must be rigorous expectations.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”