Indiana advocates for traditional public schools are doing what they can in the little time that’s left to block legislation that would let charter schools share in the revenue produced by local property-tax referendums.
They had no chance to weigh in on the measure before Monday, when it was approved by the Senate as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with various tax matters. That’s because it didn’t appear until Monday morning. Its author bypassed the normal legislative process, which includes committee hearings in both the House and Senate and a chance for the public to speak.
Legislation to let school districts share the proceeds of property-tax referendums with charter schools is a short step from becoming law. Maybe that’s a reasonable idea and maybe it isn’t. But the way it arrived – slipped into a catch-all bill with no chance for scrutiny – should upset everyone.
There were apparently rumors around the Statehouse that charter school advocates might want a share of school referendum dollars. But no legislation to that effect was introduced, and no lawmakers suggested the idea during meetings of the House and Senate education committees.
On Monday, though, the referendum-charter measure was filed as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with “various tax matters.” This was well after the bill had been approved by the House and by a Senate committee, when advocates for and against could review the language and have their say.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair
We’ve known something fishy was going on with virtual charter schools since 2017, when a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation exposed shady business practices and lousy test scores and graduation rates at Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.
A blockbuster report this week from the State Board of Accounts shows just how bad it was – and it was worse than we’d imagined. The report charged that the schools overbilled the state by $68 million by vastly inflating the number of students who were enrolled in and attending classes online.
It also found schools made $85.7 million in questionable payments to vendors in which school officials or family members had an interest. Much of the taxpayer money that the schools received, the report shows, went to a network of for-profit businesses tied to school founder Thomas Stoughton and his associates.
I’m no fan of charter schools, but Indiana data showing that only 40% of their students graduate from high school are arguably misleading. The data are correct, but the category includes more than what we typically think of as charter schools: i.e., schools that resemble public schools but are privately operated.
It includes 20 or so adult high schools, which are designed to help older students and dropouts make up missing credits and earn a degree. Dominated by at least 15 Goodwill Excel Centers, those schools tend to enroll students who are behind on credits. Their 2019 “cohort” or on-time graduation rate was 18.2%.
It also includes virtual charter schools, which seem to have a lousy record for graduation rates, test scores and nearly everything else. The overall graduation rate for virtual schools and blended schools, which combine online and classroom learning, was 32.6%.
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. Continue reading
CLARIFICATION: The transfer report counts 5,407 students who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools District and who attend IPS “innovation network schools” as having transferred out of the district to charter schools. (Innovation network schools are part of IPS but operate much like charter schools and have their own school boards). If those students were counted as attending IPS schools, the proportion of state-funded students in the district who attend IPS schools would be 66.5%
Nearly 14% of state-funded K-12 students in Indiana attend schools other than public schools in their local school district, according to a report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.
Some attend charter schools. Some attend private schools with help from state-funded tuition vouchers. But many transfer to public schools outside the district where they live, an option that has become increasingly common in the past decade.
Some districts are hurt especially hard by school choice. In Gary Community Schools, only 36.4% of students who live in the district attend local public schools. In the Indianapolis Public Schools district, the figure is barely half.
Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski challenged conventional wisdom when they published research that found public schools were better than private schools at boosting student achievement.
Five years later, their conclusions have been confirmed several times over – especially by studies of state voucher programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools.
“In the last four years, every study of student achievement in voucher programs has found large negative impacts, except for a couple of studies that found no impact,” Christopher Lubienski said recently. “The programs are hurting the learning outcomes of children using the vouchers.”
UPDATE: Matt Shafer Powell, chief content officer of WFYI Public Media, provided the following statement regarding this post and its reference to a letter supporting the Rooted School charter application:
As a journalistic enterprise, WFYI Public Media does not endorse nor support any particular argument or set of opinions within the charter school debate. It’s important to us that the public recognizes WFYI as an independent voice, without editorial bias or influence. The letter in question is not representative of WFYI’s viewpoint. It was written by a non-news employee who was unaware that the inclusion of WFYI’s name on the letter was an objectionable practice.
WFYI recently developed an ethics guide for each of its employees and will soon embark on an organization-wide training program to make sure everyone understands their role in our journalistic mission. Our hope is that such incidents as this are rare or non-existent in the future.
Kudos to WFYI for this thoughtful, ethical response.
Research has found that charter schools, overall, are no more effective than public schools at raising student achievement. But there’s one area where they seem to run circles around public schools:
Marketing and public relations.
How else can you explain the way individual charter schools generate so many favorable stories in the news media? It’s an impressive skill, one that public-school leaders might want to study.
The Indiana Court of Appeals has dealt a setback to charter schools that sued to get more money from the state. The decision, written by Judge John Baker, overturned a Marion County trial court decision that the schools were entitled to additional funding.
And this could be a big deal. If the charter schools had prevailed, it could have opened the door to complaints by other charters, costing Indiana tens of millions of dollars.
Indiana Connections Academy, a virtual charter school, sued the state in 2016. Two other schools, Andrew J. Brown Charter School in Indianapolis and Aspire Charter Academy in Gary, joined the lawsuit.
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.