Public access counselor: Charter school approval should be public

Cheers for Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, for ruling that private colleges and universities should comply with the state Open Door Law when they decide to authorize charter schools.

And jeers for Grace College and Theological Seminary for responding that it just doesn’t care – it still will not disclose information about the college trustees’ approval of a charter for Seven Oaks Classical School, a proposed charter school in Monroe County.

I don’t always agree with the public access counselor – more on that soon – but Britt got this one right. When they approve charters, private colleges are creating schools that will receive public funding and be subject to state regulations. Those decisions should be made in public.

The opinion, in response to a complaint by WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle, doesn’t mention Grace College but refers to actions by Trine University, another Indiana private college that has entered the charter school business. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times reports, it’s clear the legal reasoning also applies to Grace and Seven Oaks.

An opinion by the public access counselor doesn’t have the force of law, however, and Grace College can ignore the decision. Someone could sue; but even if a judge were to rule the charter approval was illegal, Grace could presumably fix the problem by voting again in public.

Indiana legislators created this issue when they decided in 2011 that all private, nonprofit colleges and universities in the state could authorize charter schools. Lawmakers finally realized it was a problem after Seven Oaks and other charter schools began “authorizer shopping,” turning to private colleges when they were turned down by the state charter school board or a public university.

This year, they passed Senate Enrolled Act 93, which says private colleges and universities must create a “separate legal entity,” subject to public meetings and records laws, to authorize charter schools. But the law doesn’t take effect until January 2017.

Meanwhile, here’s another concern about Seven Oaks. The charter – the agreement that details how Seven Oaks will be held accountable – doesn’t exist. Grace College trustees voted in January to authorize the school. But Amanda Banks, the school’s public relations director, told me at the time that the actual charter was “in process” as the Seven Oaks board worked through a checklist of required activities.

I checked back with Banks last month, and it sounded like it will be awhile before there’s a written charter – which will detail, among other things, whether Grace will received the 3 percent of Seven Oaks’ state funding that it can claim as compensation for authorizer duties.

“You are welcome to check back with me in a couple months,” Banks told me by email. “While I can’t give you a firm date in which I expect it will be completed, it should be before August.”

August is when the 2016-17 school year starts. Seven Oaks is currently enrolling students on the assumption it will be open then — even though, at last report, it was still trying to buy and then renovate the former school building in Ellettsville where the board wants to locate.

Any parents who are thinking about enrolling their children at Seven Oaks should have a Plan B.

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