Choice vs. standards at the Indianapolis Project School

The flap over Mayor Greg Ballard’s decision to shut down the Indianapolis Project School raises a fundamental question about how schools are held accountable.

Should we set high standards, pressure schools to meet them and impose consequences when they don’t? Or should we focus on creating more options, trust parents to know what’s best for their children and let the market decide which schools stay open and which schools close.

Adam Baker, spokesman for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett made the case recently for the market. If a school doesn’t perform, students will leave, he told the Indianapolis Star’s Kate Jacobson for a story about Indiana’s laissez-faire approach to online charter schools.

“If they start losing students, they start losing funding,” he said. “ … Ultimately, (we will) provide that transparency to allow parents to make that decision.”

But as the Star’s Scott Elliott blogged, the idea that the market will force schools to perform better hasn’t always worked. “The problem is schools are not like stocks or commodities,” Elliott wrote. “’Buying’ a school is a complex and emotional decision … Choosing a school also means joining a community of people who become your friends and your children’s friends. Deciding to leave is more akin to breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend than it is to selling a stock.”

Elliott was responding to Baker’s statement in the story about virtual charter schools, but the sentiment was probably even more applicable to the Indianapolis Project School, a real charter school.

Ballard announced Tuesday that he will revoke the school’s charter. He pointed out that only 29 percent of the school’s students passed both the math and English ISTEP-Plus exams last year. Perhaps more troubling, just 43.5 percent of third-graders passed IREAD-3, the new third-grade promotion test.

It may be that the “recently discovered serious financial problems” referenced by the mayor were a bigger factor in the decision to revoke. Note too that David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust and a key player in the state’s charter-school movement, recently named the Indianapolis Project Schools as one of four Indiana charter schools that should close because they weren’t measuring up. Parent participation in the movement to opt out of standardized testing may not have helped politically.

Supporters have rallied around the Indianapolis Project School, insisting that test scores paint an inaccurate picture and students are thriving at the school, with its focus on project-based learning and community service. School leaders dispute the allegation that there were financial irregularities.

Parents clearly want to keep sending their children to the school – as Star columnist Dan Carpenter writes, “The entrepreneurial model has produced satisfied customers.” The market would keep it open.

But the public, not the parents, is paying for the school’s operation. And publicly funded education is arguably a public good that benefits us all, not a private good that helps only students. We shouldn’t rely on the market to make sure our education tax dollars are well spent.