Future of Schools

Charter schools see explosive growth in Indiana, doubling in five years

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

An unprecedented expansion of charter schools over the past five years — centered heavily in Indianapolis — is expected to push the number of privately managed public schools in Indiana to 100 this fall for the first time.

Advocates are celebrating the breadth of new options for families to choose from, including more good schools in areas where children score poorly on state tests. But in Indianapolis, the steep growth has begun to raise questions about whether there are enough students to fill all the new seats.

“It is a milestone I would celebrate but only in the context of quality,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, the president of the Indianapolis Public School Board and a former state legislator. “I don’t draw lines between quality district schools and quality charter schools. I think that’s the relevant point. I want Indiana to have more quality schools.”

Charter growth in Indianapolis has accelerated enrollment losses by Indianapolis Public Schools — which is down more than 10,000 students in the last decade to about 29,500. That’s a drop of about 25 percent.

But in the last few years, new charter schools have also struggled to meet their enrollment goals, notably Tindley schools and Carpe Diem, so local schools advocates are watching to make sure that demand for new schools keeps pace with supply.

With 100 charter schools, Indiana will have more than twice as many as it did five years ago, when lawmakers pushed for more schools by voting to give private universities and a new Indiana Charter School Board the right to approve new charter schools.

Previously, Ball State University or the Indianapolis mayor’s office were the only major organizations that could sponsor a new charter school. They oversaw all of the state’s charter schools with the exception of a handful that were sponsored by local school districts.

Sullivan helped write the 2011 law to create the state charter board but opposed the portion that expanded sponsoring to private universities. She argued that more charter schools has had a good impact overall.

“It’s good to not have a monopoly and have other options within the public sector,” Sullivan said. “I believe charter schools have nudged and prodded the district into making change that have benefited families.”

There were 49 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools in Indiana when the 2011 law first passed. Now, there are 94 charter schools already open, six more planning to open for the first time this fall and another ten in the pipeline to open in 2017.

Neighboring states, especially Michigan and Ohio, were earlier to legalizing charter schools and more sponsors in those states led to far more schools approved. Michigan, which legalized charter school in 1993, has about 300. Ohio passed its charter law in 1997 and has 400 charter schools. Both states are criticized for having too many poor quality  schools.

Indiana’s law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts didn’t pass until 2002 and gatekeepers in Indiana have been more assertive about holding high standards.

Ball State and the mayor’s office both turned away about 75 percent of applicants to open schools, meaning Indiana’s charter growth was slower. That has meant fewer charter school failures than other states.

Under former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, the city more than doubled its portfolio of charter schools to 38 this year, up from 18 when he took office eight years ago, but the last 12 months have not seen the same demand for new schools.

Since Democrat Joe Hogsett took office in January, replacing Ballard, the city has received no applications for new charter schools  — a rare occurrence.

Hogsett’s education director, Ahmed Young, said Hogsett intends to continue sponsoring charter schools. He blamed the ebb in applicants on uncertainty with the mayoral transition. He expects it to pick back up in 2016-17.

“I think it’s an aberration,” he said. “We expect a robust application cycle this fall. We are not focused specifically on the number of charters. We are more focused on our current schools and that they are performing well. We can’t just grow for the sake of growth. We have to be strategic about how the charter sector grows.”

Ball State also saw fewer charter school applicants during the last school year. The university had only two schools apply and its charter school team turned both of them down. University officials speculated that less federal start up aid might be a factor.

Karega Rausch, who chaired the Indiana Charter Board until last month, said a drop in applications has been happening nationally, but charter advocates are not sure why. So it makes sense that some sponsors may experience dips in the number of applications. Rausch works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter schools based in Chicago.

The average number of applications received by sponsors nationally dropped the last four years, from more than 18 in 2011-12 to less than 10 in 2014-15, he said. The number of new charter schools that opened nationwide in 2015-16 was 404, down from 640 in 2013-14.

“Indiana is not immune to the trend nationally,” Rausch said. “A lot of people are trying to understand why that is.”

But at least for the next two years, Indianapolis will still see steady charter growth.

Five of the nine schools the state charter board approved to open in the next two years are in Indianapolis.

And the state charter board has become a major sponsor of new Indianapolis charter schools. The bulk of charter schools it has approved — 10 of the 14 that will be operating this fall — are in the city.

Whether demand for charter schools is dropping remains to be seen, Sullivan said.

“[Parents] are looking at IPS again who had previously not been looking at IPS,” she said. “But also the expansion of vouchers has had an impact on charters in the same way it’s had an impact on districts. If you are a parent inclined to look for choices, now you have another choice.”

Neither state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s Indiana Department of Education office nor her re-election campaign responded to several requests for comment about charter school growth. In the past, Ritz has raised concerns about the growth of school choice programs in Indiana.

To Sullivan, the charter school champion turned school board president, charter school growth will always be limited by demand and the ability of good programs to expand.

IPS, for example, has a long waiting list for its Center for Inquiry magnet schools, but is adding new CFI schools slowly to make sure there are enough principals and teachers with CFI experience to ensure new schools maintain a high level of quality.

In a similar way, she said, charter school sponsors need to pay attention so they can shift to offer more of the kinds of schools parents want — and fewer of those that they don’t.

“That’s kind of what’s supposed to happen,” she said. “When there is less demand then you know that’s enough. Parents are telling you they are not looking for that.”

 NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS IN INDIANA

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office (38 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2016-17:

Global Prep Academy in Indianapolis

Kindezi Academy in Indianapolis

New schools for 2017-18:

Avondale Meadows Middle School in Indianapolis

A second Herron High School in Indianapolis

Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis

Westside Community Middle School in Indianapolis

Ball State University (28 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Indiana State Charter School Board (14 schools sponsored)

New schools for 2016-17:

Heritage Institute for Arts and Technology in Merrillville

Steel City Academy in Gary

Excel Center in Shelbyville

ACE Preparatory Academy Charter School  in Indianapolis

New schools for 2017-18:

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

Circle City Preparatory Charter Academy in Indianapolis

Civic Collegiate Public Charter School in Indianapolis

The Mind Program High School in Indianapolis

Focus Academy in East Chicago

*A second ICN school can open in the other city the following year if the first one meets the state charter board’s expectations.

Trine University (5 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

Grace College (3 schools sponsored)

No new schools planned

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

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.