Ball State University's decision not to renew charters at seven Indiana schools highlights the state's serious need for an unbiased review of its education reform measures. Charter schools were touted as superior to traditional public schools because they would be shut down if they failed to perform. In the case of Fort Wayne's Timothy L. Johnson Academy, one of the BSU charters on the closing list, it's been a decade of poor performance.
Indiana's ed reform supporters continually claim there's an urgency to their work. "Kids can't wait," our previous state superintendent liked to say in pushing his controversial agenda. But the ed reform supporters somehow develop great patience when it comes to someone employing one of their so-called reforms. Apparently, students in poor charter and voucher schools can wait.
Some charter supporters now are applauding the Ball State non-renewal decision, pointing to it as evidence of charter accountability. There was no great clamor for closing these schools, however, until a study from the charter-friendly CREDO singled out BSU charter oversight. Perhaps it became too much to ignore, but the tardy response illustrates how difficult it is for a charter authorizer, with an investment involved and income derived from management fees, to shut down a school.
Indiana lawmakers should bear some responsibility for their own lackluster charter oversight. They showed no reservations two years ago when they created the Indiana State Charter School Board and granted authority to non-public colleges and universities to grant charters. At the time, some disingenuously suggested that Rose-Hulman and Notre Dame ought to be allowed to authorize charters. Officials at both institutions, of course, seem to recognize their expertise is not in overseeing public schools. Neither has rushed in as a charter authorizer. Instead, the newest charters come from either the state board or from small institutions with no experience in public school administration.
If lawmakers are truly interested in accountability, they would authorize a comprehensive, independent review of Indiana charter and voucher school performance. The accountability measures contrived by the previous state education administration are too politically charged to serve as an effective gauge of quality.
Indiana University's Center for Education and Evaluation Policy could handle the study, or it could be done by any similar center from another state, if true independence is sought. CEEP conducted the study of the Cleveland voucher program for that reason.
CEEP did, in fact, review Indiana charter schools for the state and released a report in 2009 that found "no practical differences in student performance for charter and traditional public schools."
So how did the General Assembly respond? It expanded charter law to create more charter schools and take more resources from traditional public schools, of course.
Yes, review would require an investment, but millions of tax dollars are at stake with the education experiments under way, not to mention the education of thousands of children. Good policy depends on good data.
More important, "kids can't wait" for good schools.