It took a few years, but charter school organizers have finally figured out that the easiest way to open their school may be to ask one of the state’s private colleges to act as authorizer. That’s the case in Monroe County, where the folks behind the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School – rejected twice by the Indiana Charter School Board – have turned to Grace College & Seminary, a small Christian college 180 miles to the north.
The state legislature, seeking to induce more charter schools to open, amended the law in 2011 to allow 30 private colleges and universities to authorize charter schools and to create the state charter school board. So far, only three private colleges, Grace, Trine University and Calumet College, have joined the game.
This creates significant issues of accountability and transparency that the legislature should consider. Other Indiana charter school authorizers – local school boards, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, Ball State University and the state charter school board – are at least indirectly accountable to elected public officials. And under the state public meetings law, they make their decisions about authorizing schools in public.
That’s not the case with private colleges. In the case of Seven Oaks, the Grace College board of directors will decide whether to approve a charter. Good luck finding out even who the board members are, let alone why they should be trusted to make a decision about spending public dollars to provide an effective education for the children of Monroe County.
But let’s assume the board takes seriously its stated mission to approve charter schools characterized by putting students first, high expectations, excellent leadership, innovation and accountability – the same mission as that of the Indiana Charter School Board.
A public hearing on Seven Oaks, at which opponents outnumbered supporters, took place Nov. 4 in Bloomington. A summary of remarks is on the Grace College website. Those of us who didn’t attend may submit written comments to Tim Ziebarth at firstname.lastname@example.org until Nov. 20. Here are mine:
I write to ask Grace College to reject a request for a charter for Seven Oaks Classical School. As a parent, grandparent and taxpayer, I am concerned that the school will cut enrollment and funding for the Monroe County and Richland-Bean Blossom school corporations, potentially reducing opportunities for the vast majority of local children. But my primary concern is accountability: Organizers have not demonstrated that Seven Oaks will provide a high quality education deserving of public funding.
Under Indiana law, charter schools may serve different student learning styles, offer innovative choices, provide opportunities for educators, allow flexibility in exchange of exceptional levels of accountability, and provide for parent and community involvement. From the Seven Oaks application, it is not apparent that the school would meet these requirements in ways not already provided by local public schools.
I am pleased to see that Grace College’s charter school authorization process closely mirrors that of the Indiana Charter School Board and to learn that the college will use the same rubric as the charter school board in evaluating the Seven Oaks application. As I am sure you know, Seven Oaks applied twice for a charter from the Indiana Charter School Board. It was rejected in 2014 and it withdrew its proposal in spring 2015 after staff recommended rejection. Please read closely the attached report from the charter school board, which raises concerns about a lack of capacity for educational leadership by the Seven Oaks board, a “very rigid discipline policy” and other issues.
Yet it appears the Seven Oaks charter application has not been revised to address issues raised by the charter school board. Also, comments at the public hearing raised concerns about the proposed facility for the school, a lack of solid partnerships with community organizations and other issues.
The Seven Oaks organizers have demonstrated remarkable persistence and commitment. But the founding group has little experience with K-12 education, and they have not made a persuasive case that their school will provide unique educational opportunities. They of course could open Seven Oaks as a private school. But public education should be responsive to the public, not a select group.