Ever since a state law was passed last year, Indiana private schools have been allowed to ask for a waiver to accept new voucher students despite years of bad grades.
And many have. In fact, the Indiana State Board of Education has listened to numerous hours of debate from private schools hoping for reprieves from the law, including two more on Wednesday.
But now some board members are asking if Indiana’s accountability rules for private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers are effective when schools can so easily get around them.
“A waiver is supposed to be something that happens not regularly. That’s why it’s called a waiver,” said board member Gordon Hendry. “This waiver process (has gotten) out of control. There are no guidelines, there are no rules.”
The state board rejected the proposals from two schools that presented Wednesday. But since May, they have approved four others and denied a fifth. Seven schools have come forward so far, and there is nothing to prevent them from coming back if the board rejects them a first time.
Under state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years — and if that’s three Fs in a row, they need a C or better for three years.
The waiver law, passed last year, gives private schools an option to appeal those consequences to the state board, said author Rep. Bob Behning. Last year, he argued that traditional public schools and charter schools already have a method through which they can appeal their state grades and avoid consequences such as closure or takeover.
But in practice, the law has been difficult for state board members to work with.
Part of Hendry’s frustration stems from its vague wording. The law says the state board may grant a one-year waiver of A-F grade consequences if a private school shows that a “majority of students” have “demonstrated academic improvement during the preceding school year.”
That academic improvement piece is key — lawmakers didn’t define it, and so far board members haven’t agreed on what exactly counts. Schools have come forward using a variety of data and information to show improvement, including graduation rate, test scores, teacher training improvements and changes in state letter grades. The same academic improvement language is used in another part of state law dealing with A-F grade appeals for public schools.
David Freitas, another state board member, said he thinks the board needs to have a larger conversation about what drives waiver decisions. That way, he said, the board has a reference point and can apply the law consistently, and schools have an idea of what goals they need to show they’ve met.
“We’re not ready,” Freitas said. “I’m a proponent of having some set of guidelines or guidance for us so that as these are coming forward, that we are not willy-nilly making decisions.”
But not all board members agree. Vince Bertram said the board needs the law to be broad so it can consider schools on a case-by-case basis.
“I would not want us to create a system that redefines and just sets another … red line,” Bertram said. “We need that flexibility to look at individual schools based on their individual circumstances and then make a decision.”
This story has been updated to include that laws governing public school A-F grade appeals also include some of the same wording as in the private school law.