What’s next for Indy ‘turnaround academies’?

It seemed like a victory for Indianapolis Public Schools when the Indiana Charter School Board voted Dec. 13 to reject charter applications for three Indianapolis “turnaround academy” schools.

But it’s not over till it’s over. The fate of the schools – Emmerich Manual High School, T.C. Howe School and Emma Donnan Middle School – is still in the hands of the State Board of Education. And the board has already turned a cold shoulder to the idea of returning the schools to IPS.

The State Board of Education will consider what happens next at its Jan. 15 meeting.

The state took over the former IPS schools in 2012 after years of poor test scores. It turned to Charter Schools USA, a Florida for-profit company, to run them as a “special management team.” With that arrangement expiring, the state board had three options. It could:

  • Return the schools to IPS.
  • Direct CSUSA to apply to run the schools as charter schools.
  • Implement a new “intervention,” such as having CSUSA continue to operate the schools as state-governed turnaround academies.

The board went with the second option, directing CSUSA to seek charters for the schools. Because Indiana requires charter schools to be run by nonprofits, the company had an affiliate, ReThink Forward Indiana, apply for the charters.

But to the surprise of nearly everyone, the Charter School Board said no.

This is a board that is stacked with school-choice and charter-school supporters. Its chair, Kim Preston, has advocated for charters and school vouchers with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. She served in key roles for former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who has ties to Charter Schools USA.

Opposing the charters were Indianapolis Public Schools officials. They proposed having local charter-school operators run Manual and Donnan as innovation network schools, with Howe’s fate less clear.

Three issues seemed to cause the Charter School Board to balk. First, an investigation by Chalkbeat Indiana suggested that Manual may have inflated its graduation rates. Second, CSUSA and its partners want to take ownership of the school buildings even though IPS is still paying off bonds that financed renovations. And third, CSUSA’s enrollment projections for the schools seemed overly optimistic.

But the State Board of Education heard all those concerns this month and wasn’t swayed. And it seems unlikely that Charter Schools USA will walk away and let the schools return to IPS. As WFYI reporter Eric Weddle has pointed out, CSUSA and its partners have a history of fighting for charters.

With its charter applications rejected, CSUSA (or ReThink Forward Indiana) can amend its proposals and re-apply to the Indiana Charter School Board, said Nicole Hornyak, manager of operations for the charter board. Or it can submit its application to another charter school authorizer, such as Ball State University or a private college. It’s happened before.

Don’t be surprised if the State Board of Education directs CSUSA to go authorizer-shopping.

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