Bad week for ‘school choice’

Last week was a bad one for the claim that school choice can cure whatever ails education in Indiana. Choice doesn’t always lead to good outcomes.

Start with the story of Delaware Christian Academy in Muncie. Although the school has received $1.3 million in state voucher funding over five years, enrollment dwindled to six students. The building was condemned after an inspector found students “huddled around a kerosene heater in blankets.”

Then look to Indianapolis Lighthouse East. The charter school’s board voted to shut it down after a review conducted for its authorizer, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, cited problems with low test scores and graduation rates, unqualified teachers and lax discipline.

In each case, problems came to light and are being acted upon. But that’s small consolation to the students who will have to find new schools or to the families that put their trust in these institutions.

Delaware Christian opened in 2014 and right away started receiving voucher funding, but it never signed up more than a few dozen students: Enrollment peaked at 91 in 2015-16 and had dropped to 17 by last fall. Most of the students received vouchers.

A city building inspector condemned the building last week, citing a leaking roof, water damage and electrical problems, according to the Muncie Star Press. The six students were in one classroom in a former elementary school built in the 1930s. Students ranged from young children to teenagers.

The school’s volunteer superintendent, Mike Baur, denied that conditions were bad and said the school was being subjected to “character assassination.” Baur is reportedly a former Ball State University faculty member and a former member of Ball State’s charter school review board.

But if the school can find somewhere to meet and keep student enrolled, it can continue to operate and receive vouchers. The State Board of Education approved the school in 2013 under the state’s hands-off “freeway” accreditation system. Last summer, it extended accreditation through 2019-20.

The story of Indianapolis Lighthouse Academy East is arguably worse, because its closing affects more students – about 300 in the charter school. This spring and summer, they will all need to find another school in which to enroll. Grades 7-12 are hard enough to navigate without that challenge.

This is a school that looks good on paper. It claims to have an arts-infused curriculum and a restorative justice approach to discipline. Unlike some Indy charters, it hasn’t relied on no-excuses discipline that suspends or expels students for minor offenses.

It’s authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, and two recent studies – one from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford and the other from Indiana University – reported favorably on the success of mayor-sponsored charter schools at improving test scores.

But teachers said the policies weren’t implemented effectively. And the school faced issues beyond its control. Four students died in the past year, including a popular basketball player whose death in an accident was witnessed by several fellow students.

Meanwhile, the school struggled academically. Only 44 percent of seniors were expected to graduate. Only 2.7 percent of high-schoolers and 7.1 percent of middle-schoolers passed state math exams.

According to an evaluation done for the mayor’s office, the school has been plagued by teacher and administrator turnover. Vacancies were unfilled, most teachers are not properly licensed, and many appear to be subs who were drafted to permanent teaching duty.

Teachers blamed a hiring freeze imposed by the school’s educational management organization, Florida-based nonprofit Lighthouse Charter Academies. A regional vice president didn’t call it a freeze but said “the school was asked to put the brakes on spending due to budgetary concerns,” the report said.

If that’s the case, the bottom line was protected, but the students weren’t. Students and their families chose the school. But there was no guarantee the school’s network would choose to do right by them.

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