Last fall the Indiana Charter School Board voted unanimously to reject a charter application from organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County. Now Seven Oaks is back with another request for the charter. But it’s hard to see what has changed that would lead to a different outcome this time around.
Organizers say the school will offer a “classical” education with heavy emphasis on Latin, character education and “civic virtue.” They hope to open in the fall of 2016 at the former site of Ellettsville Elementary School, which closed 13 years ago.
The Charter School Board cited the Seven Oaks board members’ lack of background in education and finance when they rejected the first proposal last year. Apparently in response, the school added to its board local accountant Fred Prall and former Fort Wayne charter-school official Guy Platter.
Prall may be a good accountant, but he is best known as a conservative political activist. He headed the Monroe County Taxpayers Association, a local government watchdog group active in the 1990s. He was the Republican candidate for mayor of Bloomington in 2003.
At a Charter School Board public hearing on the Seven Oaks proposal Monday, he said nothing about classical education but outlined his vision for a universal voucher system in which money would “follow the child” regardless of where the child’s parents choose to send him or her to school.
Platter, according to his resume, was founding principal of Imagine MASTer Academy, a charter school in Fort Wayne, and regional director of Imagine Schools in Indiana and Ohio. MASTer Academy and its sister school, Imagine School on Broadway, consistently got Ds and Fs from their performance.
The schools’ authorizer, Ball State University, revoked their charters in 2013. But they reopened as private schools – called Horizon Christian Academies – relying on vouchers for funding. The three Horizon schools got grades of C, D and F last year, unusually low for private schools.
Imagine Schools are known for a business model that critics call “self-dealing.” They use public funds to pay sometimes exorbitant rents to an affiliated real estate company. In 2011-12, one Imagine School in Ohio spent 81 percent of its state aid for rent.
At the Seven Oaks public hearing, most of the testimony was more heat than light.
Opponents of the school pointed out that it would pull students and funding from Monroe County and Richland-Bean Blossom public schools, reducing opportunities for their students. That’s an important point, and they were right to make it. But the Charter School Board doesn’t decide if charters, as a philosophy, are good or bad. Its job is to approve strong proposals and reject weak ones.
Supporters of the school, for the most part, argued simply that choice is good, therefore more choice is better, and therefore the board should approve Seven Oaks to give parents another choice. The only accountability they seemed to accept is the accountability of the marketplace. If a school isn’t effective, parents won’t choose it and it will close – never mind the harm to students, parents and taxpayers.
But it’s not surprising that supporters of the school would argue on the basis of ideology. Seven Oaks is working with Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which casts itself as part of “a war to reclaim our country” from forces such as “100 years of progressivism” in education.
Bloomington parent Rick Nagy cut through the rhetoric at the hearing. Seven Oaks, he said, “amounts to little more than ideological vanity project for its founders.”
Those founders are persistent; I’ll give them that. But their vision hasn’t changed. They haven’t demonstrated the commitment to innovation, high expectations, strong leadership and rigorous accountability that are supposed to be the hallmarks of successful charter schools. What they are proposing should be a private school, not a public charter school.
The Charter School Board got it right when it said no last year. It should say no again.