A race to the bottom for Indiana’s worst schools

It turns out a decision from Ball State University to cut ties with seven badly performing charter schools in Indiana was no death sentence. Four of these seven have been reprieved: Two found new sponsors and two others were born again as campuses of a private Christian school.

All but one of these four previously received F grades on the state’s latest school report card (the fourth received a D), and performance had been getting worse, not better. For eighteen months, Ball State held repeated meetings with these schools but found little hope of a turnaround. In January, the university declined to renew their contracts.

When these schools began to shop around for new sponsors, National Association of Charter School Authorizers president Greg Richmond said they were engaged in a race to the bottom, scouring for patrons with lower standards to stay alive. Two of the schools ultimately found new authorizers in small private colleges that had virtually no experience in authorizing charter schools. Two others operated by Imagine Schools opted to reopen as campuses of the fledgling Horizon Christian Academy and encouraged their families to apply to Indiana’s voucher program.

Their case to stay open calls on arguments that are now familiar: Performance will improve this year; parents are satisfied with their chosen schools; and the neighborhood district schools are worse. Moreover, these schools and their new sponsors say that a statewide one-size-fits-all accountability system insufficiently measures the progress of their impoverished and transient student population.

All of that might be convincing if other Indiana charters with their own hard-to-serve populations weren’t doing so well. But Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) said that most other charters are doing better. CREDO reported that students enrolled at Indiana charter schools had, on average, greater learning gains than their peers in traditional schools, but its researchers also concluded that those gains would have been larger if not for the bad performance of the schools authorized by Ball State.

Ball State showed it would no longer tolerate that performance. Unfortunately, the state has empowered other authorizers that will, and it has established a voucher program that can convert the worst charters into publicly funded private schools.

To be sure, Indiana’s charter and voucher laws are tougher than most. The state Board of Education, for instance, can either make an authorizer close a poorly performing school or transfer sponsorship to another authorizer. But that isn’t the same as an academic death penalty as practiced in neighboring Ohio. There, schools in “Academic Emergency” for two of the last three years face automatic closure. This eliminates the prospect of “authorizer shopping,” which is important now that the Indiana legislature has opened the door to multiple authorizers over the last couple of years.

As for vouchers, private schools must be accredited before they can enroll publicly funded students, and accreditation can come from either the state or one of eight national or regional accrediting agencies. That’s good, but it’s not the same kind of quality control that has been evident in at least one other voucher program. The Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University once was empowered to screen private school entrants in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to gauge their effectiveness. The number of new schools in that program decreased year after year starting in 2009, but unpromising schools were filtered out. It’s doubtful that an F-rated charter school would pass such a screen.

Of course, all four of these schools could end up in the same trouble two or three years from now. If performance continues to lag at the two charter schools, the state charter board could intervene. And if Imagine’s new private schools continue to fail, the state can suspend them from the voucher program. But ought parents and the taxpaying public be made to wait that long when past performance has been so obviously bad? The answer is no.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the state's charter board can either make an authorizer close a poorly performing school or transfer sponsorship to another authorizer. It's the state Board of Education that has that power.

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