Future of Schools

Indiana has seen a burst of new charter schools since 2011 law

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Tindley Accelerated Schools now has a girls-only middle school that scored well on ISTEP.

The number of charter schools in Indiana has grown rapidly since a 2011 state law passed expanding authority to approve and oversee them to new sponsors, and the acceleration looks likely to continue over the next two years.

Up to 14 charter schools were approved in recent months to open this fall, if they can find buildings and overcome other start-up challenges.

Even coupled with another recent trend toward tougher oversight — four charter schools were closed down this year for poor performance or other problems — the net gain could push the number to 86 charter schools statewide next year.

That is a significant jump: just 49 charter schools were open statewide when the law expanding charter school sponsorship passed four years ago, meaning the potential gain equates to about 75 percent more charter schools.

Starting slow, gaining momentum

The first 10 charter schools opened in Indiana in 2002 after a years-long battle in the Indiana legislature ultimately produced a law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts.

For the first decade after 2002, an average of about five new charter schools opened each year, and schools rarely closed except in a few high-profile cases in which sponsors found they were seriously mismanaged. That was relatively slow growth when compared to neighboring states such as Ohio and Michigan, where far more charter schools opened each year.

But over the past three years, new Indiana charter schools have opened at almost twice the rate of the first decade: an average of about nine new charter schools per year.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office has expanded its stable of charter schools quickly in that time. In 2011, Ballard sponsored 18 charter schools. This year he sponsored 29 charter schools. One of those schools will close and another is converting to a private school.

The city could be sponsoring even more charter schools, but under Ballard and recently-departed Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, the city ramped up accountability and pushed low-scoring charter schools to close or merge with more successful schools.

In all, five mayor-sponsored charter schools that were open in 2011 have ceased operations.

“We focused on replication of things that worked and accountability for those that didn’t,” Kloth said. “We enforced high barriers to entry and true accountability for results.”

The faster pace for opening new charter schools is expected to continue statewide. Besides the 14 planned to open this fall among all nine Indiana sponsors, another seven are approved to open across the state in 2016 and 2017.

New sponsors emerge

Two new forces that are helping to drive the expansion are a direct result of the 2011 law: the Indiana State Charter School Board and three private universities that have become charter school sponsors.

Sponsors grant charter schools the ability to operate, monitor their performance and can close those that fall short of their promises.

Before 2011, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s two primary charter school sponsors, along with a handful of local school districts sponsoring just a few others. The legislature that year created the state charter board with the authority to sponsor new schools, and allowed private universities to sponsor charter schools as well.

While debating the 2011 bill, lawmakers who supported the idea often suggested well-known private universities such as Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. None of them has ever done so.

Instead, the three private colleges that are now active charter school sponsors are less well-known.

Trine University in Angola will oversee five schools next year in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis; Grace College in Winona Lake sponsors a school in Fort Wayne and a school in Dugger; and Calumet College of St. Joseph sponsors one school each in Hammond and Gary.

The state charter board also has aggressively approved new schools since its founding. Nine new charter schools approved by that board opened since 2012.

Closing schools that don’t measure up

One sponsor that has been a major force in Indiana since the dawn of charter schools — Ball State — has closed more schools than it opened over the past three years.

As a result, Ball State will oversee just 29 charter schools this fall — three fewer than it did two years ago.

In part, the university’s tougher approach was driven by deep criticism of Ball State that came in 2011 and 2012 for failing to take action against schools with low scores. Since then, the atmosphere has changed, said Bob Marra, who directs charter schools for Ball State.

In fact, earlier this spring, Marra was invited to speak about high quality charter school sponsoring along with representatives from Ballard’s office at a National Association of Charter School Authorizers event. The group is known as a strong advocate for closing low-scoring schools.

“I don’t think I would have been there if it wasn’t for the work we had done the last couple of years,” Marra said.

Even so, critics of the 2011 expansion of charter school sponsors have argued that the new law paved the way for “sponsor shopping,” a practice where low-scoring schools try to jump to new sponsors before they are shut down.

That has occurred in the last three years.

Three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades — Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis and Charter School of the Dunes in Gary — managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close. Timothy L. Johnson Academy and Imagine Life Science Academy West are now sponsored by Trine University and Charter School of the Dunes by Calumet College.

In some cases, it surprised Ball State to learn schools it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.

A law passed earlier this year aims to rectify that problem. House Bill 1636, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, requires that any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor must alert the current sponsor in writing.

The goal is to ensure that sponsors know when schools they oversee seek either to change to a new sponsor or start another charter school with a different sponsor. But the bill does not prevent a new sponsor from taking on a school in danger of closing.

 NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS IN INDIANA

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office (27 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Christel House DORS West in Indianapolis

Tindley Genesis Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana College Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School East in Indianapolis

Marion Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center University Heights in Indianapolis

New schools for 2016-17:

Global Prep Academy in Indianapolis

Avondale Meadows in Indianapolis

New schools for 2017-18:

A second Herron High School in Indianapolis

Ball State University (28 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Mays Community Academy in Rushville

Indiana State Charter School Board (9 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Carpe Diem Northwest in Indianapolis

Carpe Diem Shadeland in Indianapolis

Early Career Academy in Indianapolis

Excel Center in South Bend

Excel Center in Noblesville

New schools for 2016-17:

ACE Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis

Global Leadership Academy in Indianapolis

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

New schools for 2017-18:

Indiana Charter Network Academy (run by Charter Schools USA) in Indianapolis or Clarksville

Trine University (3 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Career Academy Middle School in South Bend

Success Academy Primary School in South Bend

Grace College (1 school sponsored)

New schools for 2015-16:

Dugger Community School in Dugger

Calumet College of St. Joseph (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Evansville Vanderburgh School District (2 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Daleville School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

Lafayette Public School District (1 school sponsored)

No new schools planned

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”