A new proposal out of the Indiana House would let Ball State University take control of the financially distressed Muncie public school district through an appointed seven-member board.
House Bill 1315, parts of which also apply to the Gary school district, was heard in a House committee on Wednesday, where the amendment on Muncie was introduced. The proposal comes about nine months after lawmakers approved a bill that gave financial control of Muncie schools to the state, and just a month after the state took full control of Muncie’s academics as well.
The move is unusual — the state has never before given an entire school district to a university to run. But it isn’t out of left field. Ball State was one of the first groups in the state to oversee charter schools, and as House Speaker Brian Bosma pointed out, Ball State is also a college with a large teaching program that has two laboratory high schools in Indiana.
“I don’t know if it will be a trend,” Bosma said. “Ball State has a long history of education involvement … I’m very comfortable with Ball State’s ability to do something like that. It’s up to those working on the legislation to see if it’s a good idea or not.”
But the university doesn’t have a stellar track record overseeing charter schools. In 2017, about half of its schools were rated D or F. Only one, the Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy, received an A rating in the 2016-17 school year.
As of 2017, more than 17,000 students were attending 27 Ball State-monitored charter schools — 11 in Gary, eight in Central Indiana, five in the southern part of the state, and four statewide virtual schools. Ball State has revoked 10 charters in the past several years.
Recently, the university came under intense scrutiny from the Indiana State Board of Education for one of the schools it’s responsible for, Hoosier Academy Virtual, one of the state’s largest online charter schools. The school was required to have a hearing with the state board for the first time in 2015 for four years of F-grades, and after multiple state board hearings — and two more F grades — the board decided not to close the school. Instead, it capped enrollment and reduced Ball State’s authorizing fees.
But in September, the school announced it would close in June because it was not confident Ball State would renew its charter.
On Wednesday, Ball State officials said they were re-evaluating the quality and processes related to their charter school oversight.
Here are the most recent grades for the rest of the charter schools Ball State oversees, as well as the counties they are in and the years they opened. Schools without grades either have not been open long enough to receive them or still have grades being reviewed by the state board of education:
|Indiana Connections Career Academy 2017 (Virtual)||–|
|Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy 2008 (Grant)||A|
|The Bloomington Project School 2009 (Monroe)||B|
|Discovery Charter School 2010 (Porter)||B|
|Gary Middle College 2012 (Lake)||B|
|Mays Community Academy 2015 (Rush)||B|
|Renaissance Academy 2007 (La Porte)||B|
|Rock Creek Community Academy 2010 (Clark)||B|
|Anderson Preparatory Academy 2008 (Madison)||C|
|Canaan Community Academy 2012 (Jefferson)||C|
|Community Montessori 2002 (Floyd)||C|
|Gary Lighthouse Charter School 2005 (Lake)||C|
|Geist Montessori Academy 2006 (Hancock)||C|
|Rural Community Academy 2004 (Sullivan)||C|
|21st Century Charter School at Gary 2005 (Lake)||D|
|East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School 2006 (Lake)||D|
|East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy 2005 (Lake)||D|
|Hoosier Academy – Indianapolis 2008 (Marion)||D|
|Inspire Academy 2013 (Delaware)||D|
|Aspire Charter Academy 2008 (Lake)||F|
|Hoosier Academies Virtual Charter School 2012 (Virtual)||F|
|Indiana Connections Academy 2012 (Virtual)||F|
|Insight School of Indiana 2016 (Virtual)||F|
|Neighbor’s New Vista High School 2012 (Porter)||F|
|Options Charter School – Carmel 2004 (Hamilton)||F|
|Options Charter School – Noblesville 2006 (Hamilton)||F|
|Xavier School of Excellence 2009 (St. Joseph)||F|
Indiana is getting into district takeover at a time when state education officials have shied away from taking such drastic steps to help schools improve. Several schools were taken over by the state and turned over to charter operators in 2012, but since then, Indiana has more frequently opted to partner with schools to make change, such as the “transformation zone” and innovation school models in Indianapolis Public Schools.
Interestingly, neither the Indiana Department of Education nor State Board of Education play major roles in district takeover. The amendment includes provisions that the district make reports to the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, which handles school districts and other state entities in financial trouble, and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
Muncie was originally identified as needing the state’s involvement after taking on $18 million in debt and mismanaging money from a school bond. In the past few years it has also lost students, which means losing valuable contributions from the state. After last year’s bill passed, the district formed plans to improve finances, which included closing schools, but the district is not financially clear yet.
If the trustees at Ball State agree to take control of the district, they would form a board consisting of members appointed by Ball State, Muncie’s mayor, and the Muncie city council. The amendment says the school district must adopt “academically innovative strategies,” frees the district from certain regulations, and requires them to hold elections for new union representation.
“The future of Muncie is dependent on the future of our public schools,” said Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns. “We hope … to develop programs to sustain and improve the academic quality so students do not choose to leave Muncie public schools.”
Mearns and other Ball State officials said this set-up is better than having an outside emergency manager running the district because Ball State has ties to Muncie and the community. But some lawmakers from the Muncie area were surprised they had only just heard of this plan. Rep. Sue Errington, a Democrat from Muncie, said that the lack of open discussion is frustrating.
“It makes us feel that we aren’t being part of the solution, that it’s a solution being put upon us,” Errington said. “I hope we will find a little more two-way street than what it’s been so far.”
The bill would also allow the district’s emergency manager to fire teachers to reduce expenses and creates a system to identify districts with fiscal problems early. The system would bring aggressive consequences — if a district is identified on the fiscal watch list for four consecutive years, the district’s superintendent could have their license revoked or suspended by the appeal board.
The bill and its amendment are not yet scheduled for a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee.