A federal judge has cleared the way for a lawsuit that could reshape the charter-school landscape in Indiana.
Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled last week the Coalition for Public Education's suit against Seven Oaks Classical School can proceed. The Ellettsville school is authorized by Grace College in Winona Lake. Monroe County public education advocates claim the college's role is a violation of the federal Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from establishing an official religion or favoring one religion over another.
The lawsuit alleges the Indiana Charter School Act unconstitutionally allows religious institutions to authorize charter schools and provides public funding to them in the form of administrative fees.
The state's original charter school law did not allow nonprofit colleges, including religiously affiliated institutions, to authorize charter schools. But the law was expanded after Ball State University, the only public university overseeing charter schools at the time, began demanding more accountability from prospective charter school operators.
The lawsuit also alleges Grace College's governing board approved the charter during a closed meeting and “has not made any information publicly available regarding its procedures and criteria for authorizing Seven Oaks.”
In her ruling, Magnus-Stinson wrote, “Authorizers make important decisions about who may establish charter schools and under what circumstances a charter school may be established, which includes details such as the educational methodology the school will employ. Additionally, charter schools are publicly funded and, insofar as they draw students from public school corporations, their funding may result in a shift of public funds away from other schools. These decisions, when made by a religious institution, may raise Establishment Clause concerns ...”
In addition to the Seven Oaks school in southern Indiana, Grace is authorizer for Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne; Dugger Union Community School in Sullivan County; and Otwell Miller Academy in Pike County. Calumet College in Whiting, a Catholic institution, is authorizer for two Indiana charter schools.
“If Grace College is struck down by the federal court as an authorizer, then the schools it already has under supervision in Indiana will likely have to close and the charter school program in Indiana which has long served as a model for other states will be thrown into chaos,” according to a statement from Seven Oaks school.