Bill would forbid charter school gift card enrollment reward

Legislation making its way through the Indiana General Assembly would make illegal an Indianapolis charter school’s controversial promotion giving out $100 gift cards to families as a reward for enrolling in the school.

House Bill 1638, which primarily focuses on expanding state takeover of failing schools, would forbid schools from offering gift cards to prospective students or families in exchange for enrolling at the school, or to any person who refers students to the school. The House passed it 66-31 on Feb. 25 and the Senate is expected to take it up this month.

Chalkbeat first reported in February about Indianapolis charter school Carpe Diem Meridian’s plan to increase enrollment in the school by giving $100 grocery store gift cards to anyone who refers a student who enrolls. Charter school critics said it was an inappropriate use of public money but the practice is legal.

“Charter school advocates and doubters both feel this gift card was an abuse,” said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. “It has the unique thing of being both the appearance and substance of impropriety. I don’t think there was much opposition to this and, frankly, there wasn’t much discussion of it.”

Giving gift cards as a reward for enrolling in charter schools has been declared illegal in at least one other state — Colorado — but until now Indiana legislators have not addressed the issue.

House Education Committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he agreed with the proposed change to state law banning gift cards. But he said both charter schools and public schools need to be held accountable in how they spend money to recruit students.

“It was a probably a bad thing for schools to do, to offer gift cards or incentives,” Behning said. “We really shouldn’t be incentivizing parents based on gift cards to make the choice on what schools are best for their kids.”

Robert Sommers, Carpe Diem’s chief strategy officer, defended the charter school’s practice to Chalkbeat last month. He said spending money up front to attract students is worth it to reduce the cost it takes to educate students in the long run. Sommers did not immediately return requests for comment about the bill.

But Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said the bill should be expanded to prohibit schools from offering any item of value — including cash — as an enrollment incentive.

“People ought to come to you because you’re doing a good job, not because you’ve got a worm on your fishing rod,” Smith said.

Behning, who often spars over charter schools and education issues with Smith, who is a member of the Education Committee, agreed with him this time.

“I would agree that it should probably be more inclusive,” Behning said. “How do you legislate common sense?”