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

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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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Authorizer shopping pays off for charter school

Organizers of the Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County went shopping for a friendly authorizer and found one. Grace College and Theological Seminary, a small Christian school in northern Indiana, agreed this month to approve the charter school.

But Seven Oaks has work to do before it can open. For one thing, it needs a suitable facility. It’s looking to buy or lease and renovate a building in Bloomington, according to a news release.

The board also has to work through a 10-page checklist of items to the satisfaction of Grace College, including details about school governance, financial management, curriculum and other matters. And it needs to hire staff, including a head of school, and recruit and enroll students.

So the school may open this August, as organizers hope, but it will be a scramble. It will probably require leaning heavily on Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative and/or the school management firm Indiana Charters, both identified as partners in the Seven Oaks application.

In fact, the charter – the written contract that spells out the duties of Seven Oaks and the authorizer – hasn’t yet been completed, Grace College public relations director Amanda Banks said. No decision has yet been made on whether Grace will collect the 3-percent administrative fee that state law allows charter authorizers, she said; that provision will be part of the charter, when it’s completed.

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Grace College should say no to Seven Oaks charter school

It took a few years, but charter school organizers have finally figured out that the easiest way to open their school may be to ask one of the state’s private colleges to act as authorizer. That’s the case in Monroe County, where the folks behind the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School – rejected twice by the Indiana Charter School Board – have turned to Grace College & Seminary, a small Christian college 180 miles to the north.

The state legislature, seeking to induce more charter schools to open, amended the law in 2011 to allow 30 private colleges and universities to authorize charter schools and to create the state charter school board. So far, only three private colleges, Grace, Trine University and Calumet College, have joined the game.

This creates significant issues of accountability and transparency that the legislature should consider. Other Indiana charter school authorizers – local school boards, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, Ball State University and the state charter school board – are at least indirectly accountable to elected public officials. And under the state public meetings law, they make their decisions about authorizing schools in public.

That’s not the case with private colleges. In the case of Seven Oaks, the Grace College board of directors will decide whether to approve a charter. Good luck finding out even who the board members are, let alone why they should be trusted to make a decision about spending public dollars to provide an effective education for the children of Monroe County.

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New authorizer, same concerns about charter school plan

Rejected twice, organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville are back again with their application to open an Indiana charter school. This proposal doesn’t look much different. What’s new is the authorizer: Seven Oaks is asking for a charter from Grace College & Theological Seminary, a small Christian college in Winona Lake, Ind.

A state-mandated public hearing on the proposal will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Bloomington.

Seven Oaks applied twice previously to the Indiana Charter School Board. The board voted unanimously in the fall of 2014 to reject its request. This spring, the school pulled its application after the charter school board staff again recommended denial.

The school’s organizers then went authorizer-shopping, thanks to a 2011 state law that expanded the ability to sponsor charter schools to 30 Indiana private colleges and universities. Grace College authorizes two charter schools: Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne School, which earned Fs from the state in 2013 and 2014; and Dugger Union Community School, which opened this fall.

There’s no real oversight of private colleges that authorize charter schools. And the law provides an incentive for colleges to say yes – they get to keep 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

But Grace College says it’s committed to authorizing high-quality charter schools. So given that the new application appears similar to the previous ones, it will want to consider concerns raised by the charter school board’s spring 2015 Seven Oaks staff recommendation. Continue reading

Charter school proposal still about ideology

Last fall the Indiana Charter School Board voted unanimously to reject a charter application from organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County. Now Seven Oaks is back with another request for the charter. But it’s hard to see what has changed that would lead to a different outcome this time around.

Organizers say the school will offer a “classical” education with heavy emphasis on Latin, character education and “civic virtue.” They hope to open in the fall of 2016 at the former site of Ellettsville Elementary School, which closed 13 years ago.

The Charter School Board cited the Seven Oaks board members’ lack of background in education and finance when they rejected the first proposal last year. Apparently in response, the school added to its board local accountant Fred Prall and former Fort Wayne charter-school official Guy Platter.

Prall may be a good accountant, but he is best known as a conservative political activist. He headed the Monroe County Taxpayers Association, a local government watchdog group active in the 1990s. He was the Republican candidate for mayor of Bloomington in 2003.

At a Charter School Board public hearing on the Seven Oaks proposal Monday, he said nothing about classical education but outlined his vision for a universal voucher system in which money would “follow the child” regardless of where the child’s parents choose to send him or her to school.

Platter, according to his resume, was founding principal of Imagine MASTer Academy, a charter school in Fort Wayne, and regional director of Imagine Schools in Indiana and Ohio. MASTer Academy and its sister school, Imagine School on Broadway, consistently got Ds and Fs from their performance. Continue reading