Charter-school authorizing by private colleges not the norm

Indiana is in a small club when it comes to having charter schools authorized by private colleges and universities. And the state’s hands-off approach to letting certain faith-based colleges authorize charter schools … well, that seems to be in a category by itself.

This topic came up last month when the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County sued over the state’s charter-school law. The lawsuit raised a question: Is Indiana the only state that delegates the power to open a public school – an essential government function — to religious institutions with no state oversight.

Each of the 44 states with charter-school laws has its own approach to authorizing the schools. Fifteen states permit colleges and universities to authorize, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But seven of those states restrict authorizing to public colleges and universities.

That means there are presumably eight states in which private colleges could authorize charter schools. But in practice, there are only three states where they have done so: Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana.

In Minnesota, authorizers must apply to and be approved by the State Board of Education, Corrie Leech, media relations director with the authorizers’ association, told me by email. The state education commissioner has the authority to terminate an authorizer for unsatisfactory performance, she said. In Missouri, authorizers must notify the State Board of Education of their plans, Leech said, and the board can step in and invalidate a school organizer’s charter application at any time.

Indiana now requires new authorizers to apply to the State Board of Education for permission. But that provision didn’t take effect until 2015 – and the legislature exempted private colleges that had already authorized charter schools by then.

Three of those, Calumet College, Trine University and Grace College and Theological Seminary, have been involved in “authorizer shopping,” in which a charter school that has been rejected by one authorizer goes looking for another with a more lenient approach.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers frowns on authorizer shopping and issued a research paper in March 2016 explaining the issue and advising states on how to prevent the practice. One the negative lessons cited in the report is from Indiana. In 2013, Ball State University raised standards for its charter schools and revoked charters for low-performing schools. Trine approved new charters for two of the schools and Calumet for a third, letting them stay open.

Seven Oaks Classical School, the object of the ICPE-Monroe County lawsuit, represents a different kind of authorizer shopping. After twice failing to win a charter from the Indiana Charter Schools Board, organizers turned to Grace College. The religious college’s trustees approved the charter in a closed-door meeting, a process that didn’t win Seven Oaks any friends among local public-school advocates.

Indiana legislators tweaked the law in 2015 to discourage authorizer shopping, and the state now gets a perfect score from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers for its authorizing procedures. But as the Seven Oaks case demonstrates, lawmakers left a significant loophole in the law.

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