New authorizer, same concerns about charter school plan

Rejected twice, organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville are back again with their application to open an Indiana charter school. This proposal doesn’t look much different. What’s new is the authorizer: Seven Oaks is asking for a charter from Grace College & Theological Seminary, a small Christian college in Winona Lake, Ind.

A state-mandated public hearing on the proposal will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Bloomington.

Seven Oaks applied twice previously to the Indiana Charter School Board. The board voted unanimously in the fall of 2014 to reject its request. This spring, the school pulled its application after the charter school board staff again recommended denial.

The school’s organizers then went authorizer-shopping, thanks to a 2011 state law that expanded the ability to sponsor charter schools to 30 Indiana private colleges and universities. Grace College authorizes two charter schools: Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne School, which earned Fs from the state in 2013 and 2014; and Dugger Union Community School, which opened this fall.

There’s no real oversight of private colleges that authorize charter schools. And the law provides an incentive for colleges to say yes – they get to keep 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

But Grace College says it’s committed to authorizing high-quality charter schools. So given that the new application appears similar to the previous ones, it will want to consider concerns raised by the charter school board’s spring 2015 Seven Oaks staff recommendation. They include:

  • A lack of capacity in educational leadership on the board for a successful school.
  • An inability by the board to describe skills needed for its headmaster. Instead, it fell back on consultants from the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College.
  • A “very rigid discipline policy” that allows for suspension or expulsion for failure to turn in homework or dress code violations.
  • A lack of understanding of the use of data to monitor and improve school performance.
  • A “vague” approach to meeting the needs of English language learners.
  • No evidence the Seven Oaks board contacted local public schools to learn about their concerns.

The staff report notes that the Seven Oaks board, in its spring 2015 application, responded to concerns about a lack of educational experience by adding a former charter school administrator. “However,” it says, “the experience of the member that was added is limited to a school that was closed for poor academic performance and closed with monies owed to the state.”

Officials with the local Monroe County and Richland-Bean Blossom schools are likely to testify next week that Seven Oaks would drain students and funding from the public school districts. That’s a legitimate concern. But the bigger issue is whether the school’s very determined organizers have demonstrated they can run a school that merits public funding. The experts at the Indiana Charter School Board found they hadn’t. Why should Grace College find otherwise?

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