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

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”