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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.
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Imagine the profits

Elisa Crouch of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an interesting series on the city's Imagine Inc.-operated charter schools, examining academic performance and the questionable real estate arrangements that have taxpayers spending ever-increasing amounts on rent to a for-profit real estate investment trust.

Indiana has four Imagine-operated charter schools – all with similar real estate arrangements and less-than-stellar academic records

The Journal Gazette has reported extensively about the costly lease agreements for the local charter schools. Imagine MASTer Academy has budgeted an astounding $790,000 for rent this year. Note that enrollment dropped by 57 students this fall. Charter school supporters would have you believe there are long waiting lists to enroll. Not so.

In spite of assertions that charter schools are more accountable than traditional public schools, there appears to be no financial accountability for a rent agreement that amounts to more than $1,000 per student for one year's rent. The Imagine School boards are appointed, so there is no accountability at the ballot box. Fiscal conservatives seem to reserve their outrage over public spending for teacher salaries, not rent payments to for-profit companies.

In Indiana, at least, charter schools continue to be mistaken for private schools, operated with philanthropic support. The marketing campaign for the Fort Wayne Imagine schools fueled the misperception, advertising the schools as "tuition-free private schools." I've spoken to many people who don't understand those are their tax dollars flowing to out-of-state shareholders, and no one seems to ask why the money is going to real estate leases and not to the low-performing classrooms.

If it's not a good deal for students and taxpayers, it's a great deal for those shareholders. Don't believe it? Listen to David Brain, the CEO of Entertainment Properties Trust, boast to MSNBC's Jim Cramer about the lucrative and reliable investment charter schools represent. It's his real estate investment trust collecting the rent from Indiana taxpayers.

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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