Indiana’s tougher new standards for charter schools have helped make the state one of the best in the nation for ensuring quality charter schools, a trade group reports.
The state landed the No. 1 ranking among 43 states — tied with Nevada — on a new analysis by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that assessed charter school laws across the country.
NACSA, which has called for charter schools to be shut down if they don’t perform, ranked states by how well their laws promote school oversight.
States at the bottom of the ranking, like Kansas and Virginia, have “moribund” charter laws that produce little accountability for charter schools, the group found.
But the group praised new laws that Indiana has enacted over the last three years, saying they’ve made the state one of the nation’s best for charter school oversight.
“Indiana’s charter school work has been smart,” said Karega Rausch, who lives in Indianapolis and works as Chicago-based NACSA’s vice president of research and evaluation. “It has learned from some of the success and challenges of other states. We have taken a smart growth approach in that we are interested in providing quality options for kids but just growth hasn’t been the driving factor.”
NASCA, a trade group for charter school sponsors, is known for being among the biggest advocates for tough accountability for charter schools.
Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has at times been critical of school choice programs, was skeptical of the state’s No. 1 ranking but agreed that more accountability for schools is better for kids.
“We want children to be in good schools,” she said. “I’m always for increased accountability. I really don’t care about the category of school.”
Rausch, a former charter school director for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, said the state’s tough new accountability rules have translated into results for kids. He pointed to a Stanford University study that ranked Indiana charter schools above their peers in other states. The study said students who went to charter schools often did better than similar students in the traditional public schools they otherwise would have gone to. Overall, charter school test scores are well below the state average, however.
“I don’t think anybody would say any of our schools in terms of scale are where they need to be yet,” Rausch said. “Our state’s approach toward charter schooling has been wise. We have seen it not as an ‘end all, be all’ to providing quality education but as vitally important.”
Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University were the only active charter school sponsors in Indiana. School districts and other state universities had the ability to offer charters but had mostly declined to exercise it. Ball State and the mayor’s office were choosy. For the first decade of Indiana’s charter school experience, the mayor and Ball state turned down more than three-quarters of applicants seeking to open new schools.
But some legislators thought charter schools were growing too slowly. Hoping to see more charter schools in the state, lawmakers changed the law in 2011 to create a state charter school board that could authorize charter schools. It also extended charter sponsoring authority to private, nonprofit colleges as well as public universities. The new law encouraged small, low-profile private colleges to become sponsors including Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.
But sponsors in Indiana now must monitor their charter schools more closely than in some other states.
Over the last three years, lawmakers have worked to tighten rules for sponsors.
A 2013 law requires sponsors to close F-rated charter schools after three years. The new law also gives the Indiana State Board of Education authority to reduce the fees sponsors can collect from charter schools and sponsors can now be stripped of their oversight authority if children’s needs aren’t being met in a school.
These new laws have limited the “sponsor shopping” some schools had attempted when the state first expanded the number of charter school authorizers.
The practice involved failing schools switching authorizers to avoid consequences for poor performance.
For example, three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close.
Rausch praised Indiana for pushing transparency in charter school as a good “first step” to ending sponsor shopping, but noted that schools could have legitimate reasons for changing sponsors.
“There could be reasons for that and those reasons may need to be explored,” he said. “But [charter schools] should have to come before the state board and their authorizer and justify it.”
Earlier this year, a new law changed the rules so private colleges could not simply begin sponsoring charter schools if they choose. Instead, they must register with the Indiana State Board of Education, which can now evaluate charter school performance every five years.
The 2015 law requires any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor to alert the current sponsor in writing. The goal is to assure that the new sponsor understands the school’s history and seeks input from the previous sponsor before taking over a school.
The next step, Rausch said, is for Indiana to better define how it measures the performance of unusual charter schools, such as those that serve exclusively special education students, juvenile criminal offenders or children with drug and alcohol problems.
Earlier this year, the state board decided against sanctions for two such charter schools despite poor test scores. Rausch said the state needs guidelines for judging such schools if they are to receive exemptions from the state’s A to F grading consequences.
“There are certainly special circumstances that make our current accountability system difficult for some schools,” he said. “But simply saying we serve a different population of kids therefore the accountability system doesn’t work is incomplete.”
There are ways to judge all schools, Rausch said.
“A responsible authorizer should not simply say the state system doesn’t work, he said. “They should have their own rigorous system that says ‘these are the indicators we expect them to succeed on.’ There must be rigorous expectations.”