School closings disrupt lives

Thousands of Indiana K-12 students may be scrambling to find schools just as the 2019-20 school year gets under way. The reason: The charter schools they attended, or in which they were enrolled, are shutting down, sometimes with little or no warning.

The big factor is the pending closure of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which have been under fire for inflating enrollment numbers and for producing low test scores and abysmal graduation rates. Combined, they claimed over 7,000 students last year.

In Indianapolis, Marion Academy, a charter school that served students in the juvenile justice system or at risk of expulsion, announced last week that it was closing immediately. Indianapolis Lighthouse East Charter School announced in March that it wouldn’t reopen this fall. Also, Tindley Schools, known for their relentless focus on academics, are merging five Indianapolis schools to three.

Charter school closures aren’t an anomaly. Recently I happened to look at a list of Indianapolis charter schools from 2009. Nine of the city’s 22 charter schools from that year no longer exist.

The Indianapolis Office of Education Innovation, which oversees charter schools for the mayor’s office, lists 16 previous mayor-sponsored charter schools that have closed since 2011 (not including Marion Academy). The Indiana Charter School Board has closed four schools, three of them in Indy.

From a free-market perspective, this should be good. The idea is that schools that aren’t successful, academically or financially, should close and be replaced by new schools that may do better. But each time a school closes, there are adjustments. Families have to find a new school and figure out transportation and after-school plans. Students have to make new friends and adapt to new routines.

Research on the effects of school closure is mixed, but the findings appear to be more negative than positive. A Chalkbeat review of 17 academic studies found that closing schools often (but not always) resulted in lower test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment for displaced students.

Harvard education professor James Noonan wrote in 2016 that school closures “inflict real wounds on students, families, and communities,” and those wounds should be considered in the debate over whether to expand charter schools.

“We keep opening new schools without thinking deliberately or compassionately about what it means to close the schools we have,” he wrote. “And unless or until we figure out how to close schools with kindness, we should stop opening new ones.”

The Indiana Charter School Board, established by the legislature to authorize charter schools, recently tapped the brake pedal; it rejected two charter proposals this spring because of enrollment concerns. The board’s executive director said that “many areas of Indianapolis are saturated” with charter schools.

But the Indianapolis mayor’s office has approved charters for seven new schools, four of which are opening this fall. That’s way more than will be needed to accommodate students from the closed Lighthouse East and Marion Academy charter schools. (Students from Indiana Virtual and Indiana Virtual Pathways are from around the state and may look to enroll in different online schools. Some of those, including Indiana Digital Learning School and Connections Academy, are advertising for students).

As for the new Indianapolis charter schools, some may indeed be innovative. But they will compete with public schools and existing charter schools for students, teachers and funding. Some schools will lose the competition. More schools will close. Lives will be disrupted.

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