Indiana Charter Schools: A Status Report
Indiana Writers Group column for release April 25 and thereafter
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By Matthew Carr
If Indiana’s charter-school program is to survive, it will have to grow.
Critics are right that the proficiency rates of charter schools here are, on average, lower than the statewide rates. Indiana charter schools, however, are located in only a few areas of the state, primarily Indianapolis and Gary, targeting children with some of the most difficult learning challenges. Research shows that charter-school performance, when compared with urban districts, outpaces public schools.
In theory, under the current charter-school law, an unlimited number of conversion charter schools can be opened. In practice, traditional public schools in Indiana have always viewed the independence of charter schools with skepticism and strongly resisted their expansion.
This bias against independent experimentation is evident in Indiana’s law: The mayor of Indianapolis can authorize a maximum of five charter schools per year. This may, in part, account for the relatively small number of charter schools operating in the state since Indianapolis is the largest and most urban school district. Ball State University is the only university that has chosen to take on the challenge of chartering a new school.
Again, local school districts do not appear to have yet realized the potential the charter-school law holds for them. Only three have been converted to an independent charter status.
This result is unfortunate because the state’s charter-school law has been lauded as among the strongest in the country by the Center for Education Reform, a private nonprofit education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. The grade is based in large part on how much autonomy is granted to charter schools and the fairness of the funding system. Indiana, fortunately, also doesn’t require local school boards to approve the creation of charter schools. School board approval of new charter schools is a limitation that has effectively shut down meaningful experimentation in other states.
Much of the difficult groundwork for building a stable and accountable charter-school system already has been laid. However, early policies designed to restrain the growth of charter schools are no longer necessary. The time has come to remove some of these early impediments so that other benefits from the system can be reaped now that it has matured.
The single most important recommendation for reform at this point is to increase the number of eligible charter-school authorizers. Programs in other states provide sound guidance for opening up the authorizing process to nonprofit groups that are accredited by the state education department, including community education foundations, secular charitable organizations and churches (as long as they use a secular curriculum).
Indiana’s public universities, with the exception of Ball State University, have shown little interest thus far in authorizing charter schools. Similarly, local public school districts have largely ignored their authority to create conversion charters. Traditional public schools that feel competition from start-up charter schools are far more likely to utilize their ability to create conversion schools to create their own unique and innovative programs in response. The conversion authority provided in Indiana’s charter law holds promise, but lacks a catalyst for use without sufficient numbers of start-up charters as well.
Increasing the number of charter schools, while maintaining fealty to the principle of high quality, can best be done by allowing accredited independent organizations to authorize schools. Indiana has built a solid framework for a successful charter-school program. The time has come to let it grow.
Matthew Carr, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is the education policy director at the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions. Currently, he is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas as a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow. This is adapted from a larger article in the winter issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.