Charter-school ‘evaluation’ reads like boosterism

The State Board of Education released its first report on Indiana charter school outcomes this month. The report includes a lot of information, but overall it reads more like pro-charter advocacy than the “formal evaluation” the state legislature requested.

The report claims to compare charter schools with public schools serving similar students and concludes that “brick-and-mortar” charter schools generally do a better job. But it uses a questionable methodology and leaves out important details and performance criteria. Tellingly, it cites pro-charter sources as authorities and unquestioningly adopts talking points about “innovation” and “autonomy.”

The report sets the tone at the start, boasting that “leading experts rank Indiana No. 1” for charter schools. But the only expert it cites is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization that exists to promote charter schools and that gives Indiana A’s for its charter school support.

“The way it leads off, grading the law — it definitely comes across as kind of a cheerleading piece,” said Indiana University education professor Chris Lubienski, who reviewed the report last week.

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Urban schools losing students to transfers

Only 56 percent of school-age children who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools district attend IPS schools. The rest attend charter schools, receive vouchers to attend private schools or transfer to public schools in other districts.

In Gary, it’s even worse. Only 39 percent of school-age children who live in the district attend Gary Community Schools. More Gary students attend charter schools than local public schools.

These figures include only students whose schooling is funded by the state, not those who attend private schools and don’t receive vouchers. They are among the findings of the first Public Corporation Transfer Report, a revealing report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education..

And when students transfer out of their local school district to attend other public schools, charter schools or private schools, it matters. Districts lose funding when they lose students, and declining enrollment is one reason IPS, Gary and other urban districts have struggled financially.

In those cities, the growth of charter schools and state-funded vouchers for private schools have been driving the decline in enrollment. But elsewhere, a bigger factor has been the de facto inter-district open enrollment that was created when the state took responsibility for funding school operations several years ago. In some areas, students transfer so much that district boundaries seem almost meaningless.

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Educators give thumbs-down to school choice

Teachers, principals and superintendents don’t much care for charter schools and vouchers. Not even the ones who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s a key take-away from a survey conducted by Education Week and reported by the publication last week. The survey was administered to more than 1,100 educators in September and October.

It found that 74 percent fully or somewhat oppose the creation of charter schools. And 79 percent fully or somewhat oppose publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Among educators who voted for Trump, 64 percent oppose charter schools and 70 percent oppose vouchers — even though Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have made expanding “school choice” a centerpiece of their education rhetoric.

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Online school leaves students behind

I thought I’d heard it all when it came to questionable practices in the name of school choice. But then I read about Indiana Virtual School. After a seven-month investigation, Chalkbeat Indiana revealed how the online charter school has raked in public money while apparently doing little to educate students.

“One of Indiana’s largest high schools ended this past school year with almost 5,000 students, but no desks and no classrooms,” Chalbeat’s Shaina Cavazos writes. “The school also had very few graduates — 61 out of more than 900 seniors graduated last year. What Indiana Virtual School did have: Tens of millions in state dollars due to come its way over the next two years, and a founder whose for-profit company charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school.”

Some highlights:

  • The school had only 21 teachers for 4,682 students at the end of last school year, a ratio of 222 students per teachers.
  • Just 10 percent of its spending went to instruction while 89 percent went to “support services,” according to data provided to the state. It spent just 7 percent on teacher and staff salaries.
  • It paid about $6 million for management services and office space to AlphaCom Inc., a for-profit company headed until last year by Thomas Stoughton, the school’s founder and leader.

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A with an asterisk

Some Indiana schools, many of them charter schools or Indianapolis Public Schools “innovation network” schools, got a break on the A-to-F grades the State Board of Education approved Wednesday.

That’s because the schools are new or newly reopened. And Indiana lets schools that have been open no more than three years calculate their grades on their students’ test-score growth from the previous year, ignoring their test-score performance.

For most schools, grades are calculated on a formula that weights performance and growth equally. The growth measurement awards points for how students fare on a “growth to proficiency” table. Schools with low test scores but high growth can raise their marks, but typically by just a letter grade or two.

But schools that are graded solely on growth are more likely to receive A’s, even if their test scores are low. And in some cases, that’s what happened.

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New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

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Charter-school authorizing by private colleges not the norm

Indiana is in a small club when it comes to having charter schools authorized by private colleges and universities. And the state’s hands-off approach to letting certain faith-based colleges authorize charter schools … well, that seems to be in a category by itself.

This topic came up last month when the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County sued over the state’s charter-school law. The lawsuit raised a question: Is Indiana the only state that delegates the power to open a public school – an essential government function — to religious institutions with no state oversight.

Each of the 44 states with charter-school laws has its own approach to authorizing the schools. Fifteen states permit colleges and universities to authorize, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But seven of those states restrict authorizing to public colleges and universities.

That means there are presumably eight states in which private colleges could authorize charter schools. But in practice, there are only three states where they have done so: Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana.

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