School Choice

Charter school sponsor group ranks Indiana's charter law No. 1 in the U.S.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The number of charter schools in Indiana will reach 100 this fall.

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.”

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.