After rejection, Charter Schools USA could shop for charters for Indianapolis turnaround schools

A month after its bid for charters was rejected by a state authorizer, a nonprofit with ties to Charter Schools USA appears to be looking for another backer — raising concerns that Indiana law makes it too easy to shop around for a friendly overseer.

When the Indiana Charter School Board voted against applications for three turnaround schools — Howe High School, Manual High School, and Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School — it seemed momentarily like a death blow for Charter Schools USA’s plans to remain in the state. But the nonprofit with ties to the charter network could seek approval from several other authorizers across the state, including one of the three others currently overseeing schools in Indianapolis: the mayor’s office, Ball State University, and Education One, an arm of a private college called Trine University, based in northeast Indiana.

“It raises a question around how many authorizers is too many,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a local nonprofit that supports charter schools.

A tweet from the Howe High School account immediately after the rejection vote alluded to the available options — noting that the school was not successful in its application “with this particular authorizer,” but would continue to work with the state.

At least one other potential authorizer has been contacted by Charter Schools USA. Lindsay Omlor, executive director of charter schools for Education One, told Chalkbeat Friday that someone from the organization had already reached out to her, and she planned to visit the schools this week. Omlor said her office had not received a formal letter of intent or application, and she did not have enough information to say more about a potential application.

Charters Schools USA officials declined an interview. But in a statement Misty Ndiritu, of Noble Education Initiative, which handles daily management at the Indiana schools connected to the charter network, pointed to community support for the schools: “We continue to serve the Indiana State Board of Education and the thousands of educational stakeholders who continuously articulate that they want to stay on the current path of success at each school under our leadership and local partnerships.”

It’s an unusual case because the manager seeking a charter had the support of the State Board of Education, which has overseen the three schools for nearly eight years after severing them from Indianapolis Public Schools. Just last spring, the state board instructed the network it had brought on to manage the schools, Florida-based Charter Schools USA, to seek charters to continue running Howe, Manual, and Donnan.

That appeared likely to cement the charter network’s relationship with the schools, but in the months since several new hurdles have arisen. A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that although the high schools had few dropouts, they had some of the highest proportions in the state of students leaving to home-school, a designation that doesn’t factor into graduation rates and doesn’t ensure that students are, in fact, being educated at home. Meanwhile, Indianapolis Public Schools has been ramping up its campaign to win back control of the schools, outlining a plan to bring in new charter partners at Manual and Donnan, although Howe still faces the possibility of closure.

But it was the charter board’s decision to reject Charter Schools USA’s efforts to obtain charters that ultimately put the future of the schools in limbo. In the wake of that vote, the Indiana State Board of Education is expected to discuss the future of the schools at its January 15 meeting.

Ted Feeney, chair of ReThink Forward Indiana, the nonprofit formed to seek charters for the schools, said the organization’s next move hinges on the decision of the state board. Feeney said he doesn’t expect the nonprofit to apply for a charter before that meeting.

Whether other potential authorizers will share the apprehensiveness that led the state charter board to reject the application is uncertain. The staff for the board had recommended granting the charters for shortened, three-year terms. However, the board members went against that recommendation amid a host of concerns, including over enrollment projections, financial sustainability, and the high number of students leaving the high schools to home-school.

Patrick McAlister, who oversees charter schools for the mayor’s office, a charter authorizer, said that his office has not received charter applications for the schools, but if it did, he would share some of those concerns.

“Their enrollment projections aren’t particularly realistic,” said McAlister, who also pointed to uncertainty over the school buildings, which are owned by Indianapolis Public Schools and have debts tied to them. “I don’t see our board approving a charter from them.”

Since Indianapolis is already dense with school options, one of the most important factors in evaluating charter applications is whether there are enough potential students, said Brown of The Mind Trust.

“Local context is just incredibly important,” Brown said. “Frankly, I’m not sure that small colleges outside of Indianapolis necessarily have the right local context in order to make an informed decision.”

For the first decade after Indiana created charter schools, the state had just two authorizers, Ball State and the Indianapolis mayor’s office. But in 2011, Indiana began allowing nonprofit universities to sponsor charters and created the statewide charter school board.

In the years since, Indiana has created laws that aim to prevent chronically failing schools from remaining open and new, weak schools from winning approval, according to Karega Rausch, acting president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But none of those laws would prevent ReThink from pursuing a charter with another authorizer.

In fact, Indiana law has a specific provision allowing charter schools that have had their proposals rejected to resubmit or to seek a new authorizer.

Marcie Brown Carter, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Network, said it’s common for charter schools that are initially rejected because one piece of their proposal is weak to make improvements, apply again, and win approval. In this case, the state charter board didn’t appear to be encouraging them to reapply, she said.

“If they want to try again — which makes sense because the state board literally told them to go seek a charter — it would make sense to me that they would go approach other authorizers,” she said. “When that happens, authorizers typically … have quiet chats behind the scenes about what they saw as the pros and cons.”