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Learning Curve

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Better charter oversight

When reporters at The Journal Gazette started looking into real estate and management details involving Fort Wayne's two Imagine Inc.-operated charter schools, they found a stunning lack of oversight by Ball State University, the schools' authorizer.

The local Imagine school boards were textbook examples of dysfunctional boards: Members admitted that they hadn't read their own bylaws. They held joint meetings, with some board members serving on both boards and others voting on business over which they had no jurisdiction. The president of one of the Fort Wayne boards became involved with two Imagine schools in Texas trying to obtain not-for-profit status.

After the stories by my colleagues were published, Ball State placed one of the Imagine charter schools on probation and set strict requirements for all school board members. The university's office of charter schools didn't stop there. According to a recent story in the Star Press, 23 percent of the the Ball State-authorized charters are on probation. Another 10 percent have voluntarily withdrawn their charter or had their charters revoked.

Robert Marra, interim director of the office and a well-respected former official with Indiana DOE, said the university's charter school policy is "starting to come to fruition."

"It says the policy is working, that alternative schools that are not performing like they should -- average or above average -- may not remain open."

The intent of the charter school law was to give schools the flexibility and freedom from regulations to improve on existing schools. Only a handful of Indiana's charters, however, have truly shown innovation or offered effective alternatives. Most have reinvented the wheel, with lower-paid, non-union teachers, and in some cases, real estate deals that benefit their for-profit charter operators.

For its newfound diligence in charter oversight, Ball State will be punished. The legislative agenda put forth by the governor and state superintendent would expand charter authority to an Indiana Charter School Board and to private higher education institutions. (Look for Marian University in Indianapolis to be the first in line.) In other words, the state is setting up an end run around Ball State and the Indianapolis mayor's office, which also has charter authority.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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