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.

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Denial of school voucher data raises accountability issues

It’s a fundamental principle of government transparency: When a government agency spends the public’s money, the public should know who is getting paid and how much.

That’s why it’s disturbing that the Indiana Department of Education rejected requests from the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the Bloomington Herald-Times for information about students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools.

This isn’t a clear-cut case. It pits the principles of transparency and accountability against reasonable concerns about privacy. If the state discloses information about voucher recipients, should it also reveal who receives need-based state aid for college? Should it name people who get food stamps or other public assistance?

Disclosing information about individual students also could run afoul of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The H-T appealed the denial of its request to state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt; and Britt cited FERPA in upholding the DOE decision.

But FERPA seems to make less sense as grounds for withholding data from the MCCSC. It is entrusted, after all, with information about 10,000 students who attend local schools. Continue reading

Access counselor: hidden action is ‘particular damaging’

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt came down pretty hard on the State Board of Education for its recent end-run around the Indiana Open Door Law. But he concluded it didn’t violate the law.

Britt also suggested the legislature may want to close a loophole that let the education board take action on a controversial issue – Indiana’s A-to-F letter grades for schools — without public discussion of what it was doing.

“I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities,” he wrote. “Regardless of intent, the appearance of action taken which is hidden from public view is particularly damaging to the integrity of a public agency and contrary to the purposes of transparency and open access.”

The dispute concerns an Oct. 16 letter from 10 of the 11 board members to legislative leaders, asking them to direct the Legislative Services Agency to calculate school grades, a task normally handled by Indiana Department of Education staff. Elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who chairs the state board, wasn’t consulted and didn’t sign the letter.

Ritz sued, arguing the signing of the letter constituted an illegal secret meeting. But a judge ruled Ritz’s lawsuit was invalid because only the attorney general can sue on behalf of a state official. Tony Lux, Ed Eiler, Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer and Julie Hollingsworth took up the torch and filed a complaint with the public access counselor, an appointed state official charged with making sure public-access laws are followed. Continue reading