News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Flashpoint

April 3, 2011

FLASHPOINT: The argument in defense of charter schools

There are many myths propagated by politicians, teacher unions, school superintendents and their boards regarding charter schools. These are the facts regarding charter schools. 

In 2001, the Indiana Legislature passed a law creating a supplementary educational model to increase student achievement. Charters had been around for about 20 years and now there are 39 states with over 5,000 charter schools. Indiana currently has 62, all of them opened in the last eight years. Charters are part of the public education system and cannot charge tuition. Charter schools are opened and attended by choice.

A charter is a legal contract, usually for five years, between a non-profit organizer and an authorizer — one of three entities who have been given the power by the legislature to oversee a school. All charters are organized as a non-profit corporation in Indiana and as a 501(c)(3) under the IRS. One of the three entities that can authorize a charter school is another traditional public school corporation; there are three corporation charters with one in Lafayette and two in Evansville. The second entity is a public university, and Ball State University is the only one that has stood up.  BSU has 42 charters to date. The third entity is the mayor of a consolidated city — Indianapolis — and the mayor has 17 charters in Marion County.

All public charters have accountability to the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Accounts, just like all traditional schools. Charters file the same DOE reports and have SBOA audits. In addition, charters have even more stringent accountability to their authorizer.

Charters must allow any student in Indiana admittance; they cannot select their students. Indiana charters have about 70 percent minority students compared to 25 percent in traditional public schools. Indiana charters have about 61 percent free and reduced students compared to 39 percent in traditional public schools. 

Charter school teachers are required to be 100 percent licensed and highly qualified. Charters have teacher freedom of association and collective bargaining; not one of the 62 charter schools has unionized. Charters have to pass ISTEP and meet PL221. Charters must teach the Indiana academic standards, follow open door laws regarding meetings, abide by all special education laws and meet compulsory school attendance. Anyone who doubts these truths about charters can find the answers by going to the Indiana Code at www.in.gov/legislative/ic/code/title20/ar24.

Charters do have some differences. They cannot be a duplicate of a traditional public school. Each charter is designed differently. All charter schools have autonomy over their educational programs and operations in exchange for greater accountability for student outcomes. Charters are exempt from rules or guidelines adopted by the Indiana State Board of Education — for example, curriculum can be changed any time with approval from an authorizer; there is not mandatory textbook adoption every five years.

Charters are not required to go 180 days of school — days are set based upon their ambitious curriculum — all of them go more than 180 days. Charters are exempt from rules or guidelines adopted by the Professional Standards Board with the exception of teacher licensure — superintendents and principals do not have to be licensed. There is one big difference between charters and traditional public schools — if a BSU charter does not pass the ISTEP for four years, the school will be closed for lack of academic progress. That is part of the accountability plan, as it should be. 

Charter schools only receive dollars from the state, primarily from sales tax, just like all public schools. That is why it is impossible to say charters get more money than traditional schools. Charter schools do not receive even $1 of local property taxes. Traditional schools receive additional funds from local property taxes in the form of transportation for fuel and repairs as well as school bus replacement funds. If a school deems two or four or six of their fleet need replaced each year, the price tag for local property taxpayers will come at approximately $80,000 each. School buildings and new stadiums are built with local property taxpayer money. If a corporation needs to borrow money for cash flow, the local property taxes pay for the debt service.

Charter schools are founded by teachers, parents, and community members for varying reasons. Sullivan County is the least likely place one would find a charter school under normal circumstances. The reason there is a public charter school in Sullivan County is the result of the decision of a school board to consolidate, which would have led to the deterioration of that community and its rural lifestyle. The people of that community got their school building back and leased it to their charter school.

New legislation calls for vacant public school buildings to go to charters schools. Indianapolis Public Schools has 62 such buildings sitting around small urban communities, long paid for by local taxpayers, but made unavailable to charters. Gary is the same way.  These school corporations are trying to deter the charter school movement by not letting taxpayers who have long paid for those decommissioned buildings utilize them for alternative education other than their own model.

Soothsayers believe that Indiana’s current educational model is good enough and there is no need for any improvement in any traditional public school. There appears to be nothing seriously wrong with education in many of Indiana’s rural counties. However, there is a problem in those major metropolitan and urban areas in many of Indiana’s counties. Less than one in five of the black males who start high school in Indianapolis Public Schools will leave with a diploma — the others add to Indiana’s welfare rolls. That is low enough to rank IPS 63 out of the 63 largest urban areas in the U.S.

With IPS as an example, that is why the Indiana legislature has to do something to improve the education of Hoosiers and offer parents choices other than just the current educational model.

— Susie Pierce, school leader

Rural Community Academy

Graysville

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