The Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County has gone to court to challenge a religious college’s authorization of a charter school in Ellettsville. The coalition filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court arguing that approval of the school was unconstitutional.
The complaint says Indiana violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it let Grace College and Seminary, an evangelical Christian school, authorize Seven Oaks Classical School. The arrangement violates the state constitution, it says, because the state pays money to Grace College.
“Charter schools are taxpayer-supported and take money away from our school corporations, so only state and local officials answerable to the public should be able to authorize them,” ICPE-Monroe County chair Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.
Defendants are Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, Indiana Charter School Board director James Betley and Seven Oaks Classical School. The lawsuit asks to have part of the state charter school law declared unconstitutional and Seven Oaks’ charter ruled invalid.
Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County is a local organization made up of parents, current and retired educators and community members that advocates for public schools. It is affiliated with the statewide Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
Grace College trustees approved the charter for Seven Oaks at a private meeting in January 2016 despite widespread public opposition in Monroe County, including from the county’s two public school corporations. The school opened in September 2016 with about 160 students.
The Indiana Charter School Board rejected an initial charter request from Seven Oaks and was set to reject a second request. The school’s organizers then turned to Grace College, taking advantage of a unique 2011 state law that lets Indiana’s 30 private colleges approve charter schools.
ICPE-Monroe County attorney Alex Tanford, professor emeritus at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said Indiana law appears to conflict with a 1982 Supreme Court decision that said giving religious institutions “unilateral and absolute power” over important government decisions violates the Constitution. Opening a public school is surely such a decision, Tanford said.
Starting this year, private colleges that want to approve charter schools must create a separate entity to handle the authorizing. The entity is subject to Indiana public meetings and records laws.
But that “doesn’t really solve the problem,” Tanford said. “It’s still a religious body making the decision.”
The lawsuit also alleges violation of a section of the Indiana Constitution that prohibits spending state money “for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” State law lets Grace College claim 3 percent of the nearly $1 million per year that Seven Oaks receives from the state.
ICPE-Monroe County also has philosophical objections to Seven Oaks. The school is affiliated with Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which casts itself as part of a battle to “reclaim our country” from “progressive” public schools.
“Charter schools and vouchers undermine the critical role that public schools play in our society,” Fuentes-Rohwer said. “They divide us and facilitate isolation from different views, and should not be taxpayer-funded.”
Stephen Shipp, headmaster of Seven Oaks, declined to comment until he can discuss the lawsuit with the school’s board. A representatives of the Indiana attorney general’s office, which will represent McCormick and Betley, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.