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Bill seeks to stop ‘charter shopping’ by failing schools

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) – A bill being considered by the Legislature would make it more difficult for a troubled charter school to “shop” for an organization to sponsor it.

House Bill HB 1636 also would provide more scrutiny of private colleges and universities who authorize charter schools by requiring them to register with the state Board of Education, including a strategic vision for chartering, state Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, told The Star Press.

The bill was prompted by the state’s three main charter authorizers, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, Ball State University and the Indiana Charter School Board, Behning said. Those three have had historically a fairly strong collaboration of working together and have tried to reach out to others who have gotten into the charter school business and want to increase their rigor and scrutiny of potential charters, he said.

“I have had some concerns in the last several years about charter shopping,” Behning said. “We don’t want to say you can never do that,” but “we should not be taking bad schools and passing them off to somebody else.”

Charter schools in Indiana are free public schools run independently from school districts. The sponsors, like the Indianapolis mayor’s office or Ball State, are responsible for holding the local managers and governing boards accountable.

Ball State two years ago declined to re-authorize three charter schools in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne for a myriad of reasons, including failure to provide basic materials, like textbooks; “chaotic” school climate and culture; massive turnover of teaching staff; and the inability of school leaders to clearly articulate root causes for low and erratic student performance.

The Indianapolis school closed, while the two Fort Wayne schools re-opened as Horizon Christian Academies – private “choice” schools that accept vouchers from the state that pay the tuition of income-eligible students.

A fourth charter school, Imagine Indiana Life Sciences Academy West of Indianapolis, withdrew its renewal application to Ball State at the eleventh hour and then was authorized to continue operating by Trine University, a private school in Angola.

Trine did not consult Ball State before authorizing the school. Under the proposed bill, it would be required to.

Robert Marra, director of Ball State’s office of charter schools, said communication between authorizers is essential.

“Authorizers communicating and sharing back and forth about schools is really important. I don’t think we can get quality charter schools if we don’t have quality authorizers. We should all be put under that microscope,” he said.

David Harris, CEO of the education-focused Indianapolis nonprofit The Mind Trust, which he co-founded with Bart Peterson, former mayor of Indianapolis, questions whether the state should have included private colleges and universities in its list of charter school authorizers.

“More is not necessarily better,” Harris said. “There are just so many of them. Some may lack the expertise and resources to do it right.”