Lawsuit challenges charter approval by religious colleges

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County has gone to court to challenge a religious college’s authorization of a charter school in Ellettsville. The coalition filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court arguing that approval of the school was unconstitutional.

The complaint says Indiana violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it let Grace College and Seminary, an evangelical Christian school, authorize Seven Oaks Classical School. The arrangement violates the state constitution, it says, because the state pays money to Grace College.

Birch Bayh Federal Building and Courthouse, Indianapolis

Birch Bayh Federal Building and Courthouse, Indianapolis

“Charter schools are taxpayer-supported and take money away from our school corporations, so only state and local officials answerable to the public should be able to authorize them,” ICPE-Monroe County chair Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

Defendants are Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, Indiana Charter School Board director James Betley and Seven Oaks Classical School. The lawsuit asks to have part of the state charter school law declared unconstitutional and Seven Oaks’ charter ruled invalid.

Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County is a local organization made up of parents, current and retired educators and community members that advocates for public schools. It is affiliated with the statewide Indiana Coalition for Public Education. Continue reading

Public access counselor: Charter school approval should be public

Cheers for Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, for ruling that private colleges and universities should comply with the state Open Door Law when they decide to authorize charter schools.

And jeers for Grace College and Theological Seminary for responding that it just doesn’t care – it still will not disclose information about the college trustees’ approval of a charter for Seven Oaks Classical School, a proposed charter school in Monroe County.

I don’t always agree with the public access counselor – more on that soon – but Britt got this one right. When they approve charters, private colleges are creating schools that will receive public funding and be subject to state regulations. Those decisions should be made in public.

The opinion, in response to a complaint by WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle, doesn’t mention Grace College but refers to actions by Trine University, another Indiana private college that has entered the charter school business. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times reports, it’s clear the legal reasoning also applies to Grace and Seven Oaks.

An opinion by the public access counselor doesn’t have the force of law, however, and Grace College can ignore the decision. Someone could sue; but even if a judge were to rule the charter approval was illegal, Grace could presumably fix the problem by voting again in public.

Indiana legislators created this issue when they decided in 2011 that all private, nonprofit colleges and universities in the state could authorize charter schools. Lawmakers finally realized it was a problem after Seven Oaks and other charter schools began “authorizer shopping,” turning to private colleges when they were turned down by the state charter school board or a public university.

Continue reading