What a tangled web …

In 2012, the Indiana State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett chose Charter Schools USA to run three Indianapolis schools that the state had taken over after years of low test scores.

Thus began a complex tale replete with politics, money and head-spinning networks of relationships – with the fate of the schools, T.C. Howe Community School, Emmerich Manual High School and Emma Donnan Middle School, still in the balance seven years later.

The saga took another turn last week when the state board rejected an appeal by Indianapolis Public Schools to let the schools return to its fold as “innovation network” schools. Instead, it called for Charter Schools USA, through a nonprofit affiliate, to keep running the schools, now as charter schools.

The Indiana Charter School Board could decide Friday whether to award charters to the CSUSA affiliate, called ReThink Forward Indiana. If it does, ReThink will have yet another CSUSA-connected group, Noble Education Initiative, manage the schools.

Dizzy yet? Here are a few more details to pick apart:

Charter Schools USA is a for-profit Florida company that operates over 80 schools in six states, according to its website. Its founder and long-time CEO, Jonathan Hage, has played influential roles in Florida Republican politics, including serving on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education transition team.

Sherry Hage, who is married to Jonathan Hage, is founder and CEO of Noble Education Initiative, the nonprofit that would operate the three Indianapolis schools under a charter issued to ReThink Forward Indiana. There’s also ReThink Forward, a CSUSA arm that’s active in Tennessee; its vice chair is Tony Bennett, the former Indiana superintendent of public instruction.

Noble Education Initiative’s director of educational development and partnerships, Byron Ernest, is on the Indiana State Board of Education. Ernest worked for CSUSA as principal of Emmerich Manual for two years after the state took it over. (He has recused himself from state board decisions about CSUSA).

‘Turnaround academies’

Schools taken over by the state and turned over to managers like CSUSA are called turnaround academies. But they haven’t turned around quickly. T.C. Howe earned six more consecutive F’s under Indiana’s grading system after being taken over. Emma Donnan earned five F’s, then a C.

That’s despite approximately $22.3 million in federal School Improvement Grants that the State Board of Education has awarded to CSUSA for the schools. In recent years, the board has rejected recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education and its leader, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, to give a bigger share to district-run public schools that were struggling.

Emmerich Manual has done a little better. It received two F’s, two D’s and then C’s the past two years. But an investigation by Chalkbeat Indiana suggested the recent grades may be suspect. The school’s Class of 2018 included 83 graduates, six dropouts and 60 students who were recorded as having left to home-school, a remarkable number of home-schoolers. If those students counted as dropouts, the graduation rate would have been about 50%, not 78%, and the grade would probably not have been a C.

At last week’s state board meeting, McCormick was the only member who expressed any misgivings about students leaving Manual to home-school. Other members praised CSUSA for turning around the three schools, as have some parents and staff.

“The data is overwhelming. This is a success story,” board member David Freitas said, according to Chalkbeat Indiana coverage.

Some data: In spring 2019, between 7% and 16% of CSUSA seventh, eighth- and 10th-graders were proficient on Indiana’s ILEARN and ISTEP assessments. Statewide, about one-third of students in those grades were proficient.

Following the money

Like state government, Indianapolis Public Schools seemed to have a warm relationship with CSUSA under former IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. He and Hage arranged for IPS and CSUSA to partner to run Emma Donnan Middle School and expanded it to include an elementary feeder school.

But IPS terminated the partnership in November, and the relationship has seemed to sour. Now CSUSA may try to use a controversial Indiana law to buy or lease the school buildings for $1 – even though, in the case of Howe, IPS is still paying off bonds that were used to pay for renovations.

IPS officials dispute claims that the three schools have been turned around, citing declining enrollment, high rates of teacher turnover and large numbers of inexperienced and unlicensed teachers. IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson criticized CSUSA in a guest column in the Indianapolis Star, writing that the company “has failed to perform its responsibilities to our standards” and citing the home-schooling numbers.

Last week, IPS unveiled a plan to partner with local charter operators to run the three schools as IPS innovation network schools. As one element of the plan, Christel House Academy would take over Emmerich Manual and move its southside charter school to the Manual campus.

Chalkbeat described Christel House as a “politically influential charter network.” Its founder, Indianapolis philanthropist Christel DeHaan, has donated generously to election campaigns. Bart Peterson, a former Indianapolis mayor, is the president of Christel House International. He urged the state board last week to let IPS resume control of the three CSUSA schools, but to no avail.

But Charter Schools USA has been no slouch at cultivating influence.

CSUSA and its sister company Red Apple Development have given over $300,000 to Indiana politicians and political action committees, including over $200,000 to Hoosiers for Quality Education, which directs money to Republican candidates for state office. Much of the money has gone to candidates for governor and legislators who lead the Indiana House and Senate.

Those are the people who appoint the members of the State Board of Education.

It’s interesting that this drama is playing out as Texas is in the process of taking over the entire Houston Independent School District because of poor performance at one of the city’s 283 schools – which seems, on the surface, like remarkable state overreach. Based on the challenges Indiana has encountered in turning around a handful of schools, Texas officials might want to reconsider.

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