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School takeover outline

In a breathtaking assault on local school control, the GOP-controlled State Board of Education is set to adopt rules the day after Election Day that could hand operation of struggling schools to for-profit companies. Local taxpayers who footed the bill could find their investments handed over to charter operators with none of the accountability required of locally elected school boards.

And while the threat is imminent for five Allen County schools, more will come under fire when the new list of Public Law 221 placements is released next month. A public hearing on the proposal is set for this morning, when state board members need to hear strong objections to the plan.

The five Allen County schools – North Side, South Side and Paul Harding high schools, Prince Chapman Academy and Village Elementary – are among the first to face the proposed consequences. The rules define procedures to be followed once a school reaches its sixth year on academic probation.

P.L. 221, Indiana’s version of the federal No Child Left Behind school accountability law, outlined the general consequences for the schools. But specific procedures had yet to be determined.

Last year, when 26 Indiana schools reached their fifth year on probation, the state hired the Cambridge Group to send in teams of examiners. The Great Britain-based consultant prepared reports based on two-day school visits, and affected school districts were required to submit improvement plans based on the reports. The districts also were encouraged to sign a memorandum of agreement with the Indiana Department of Education by Aug. 31.

Most of the districts, including Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools, declined to sign the agreements, which would have required them to violate contracts with their teachers unions regarding performance evaluations.

The proposed rules formalize procedures, with a clear emphasis on turning operation of the struggling schools to an “outside manager.” The individual or organization selected by the State Board of Education would have the same authority and exemptions as a charter school. Indiana charter schools, however, are exempt from the consequences of the state accountability law. The outside manager has no deadline for improving school performance and seemingly could operate it permanently.

“There is no data supporting improvement or gains that outpace public schools when turned over to for-profit entities,” said Steve Brace, executive director of the Fort Wayne Education Association, the union representing FWCS teachers. “One only has to look at local charters to observe the evidence. The agenda set out by the state superintendent is clear. I pray the public truly understands the consequences when local control is taken from them.”

Most of the five pages of proposed rules outline the authority of the outside manager and requirements of the school district. The district, for example, must continue to pay debt obligations on the school buildings, while the outside manager is permitted to enroll even students who live outside the school’s boundaries and is not required to engage in collective bargaining with teachers. Contracts for transportation, food service, technology support, special education services, custodial services and even extracurricular activities are subject to approval by the state Department of Education, the school district and outside manager, with the DOE having the final authority in case of a dispute.

Voters unhappy with decisions made by their local school board can throw out board members when they stand for re-election. They won’t have the same recourse with a charter school operator empowered by a State Board of Education and Department of Education seemingly intent on privatizing schools.