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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 7:36 am

Charter schools exploit accountability loophole

Indiana’s 2001 charter school law allowed public universities to establish charter schools, recognizing that they could be held accountable through funding. School districts and the mayor of Indianapolis also were granted authority to establish charters. Voters could hold elected school boards and the mayor accountable if the schools did not perform well.

But Indiana’s charter school landscape developed too slowly for some. Some out-of-state operators were stymied in efforts to earn charters from Ball State University, the only public university participating. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett pushed for the 2011 law that opened the charter business to private colleges and to an appointed Indiana Charter School Board. Charters expanded quickly, from 49 when the law passed to nearly 90 operating or approved to open in the next two years.

But the accountability promise made in 2001 counts for little when the authorizer is a private college or an appointed state board filled with a majority of charter-friendly members. When Ball State threatened to revoke charters for poor-performing schools, some charter operators simply shopped for another sponsor. Thus, Timothy L. Johnson Academy – formerly sponsored by Ball State – is now overseen by Trine University. In total, four schools facing the loss of their BSU charters operate today under private oversight.

How did Trine, Grace College and others determine that failing schools deserve a second chance? Only they know – Indiana law allowed the private schools to tap into millions of dollars in taxpayer-provided tuition support with no public oversight.

It was a loophole even the biggest charter supporters couldn’t overlook, so the General Assembly this year passed Senate Bill 93, which requires private colleges and universities to approve charters through a "separate legal entity," subject to the state’s open meetings and records laws. The bill doesn’t go into effect until next January, which is how Grace College can refuse to disclose information about its decision to grant a charter to a school 150 miles away in Monroe County – Seven Oaks Classical School. The school’s charter request first was rejected by the state charter board, then an application was withdrawn after the board again said it would be rejected. But a nearly identical application was approved by Grace College in a private meeting.

Charter school authorization has become an attractive proposition for a handful of the state’s independent schools. They collect an administrative fee – generally 3 percent of a school’s state-funded tuition support. Seven Oaks will become Grace College’s third charter school, but its decision-making process won’t become public until the new law goes into effect.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, responding to a complaint filed by WFYI Radio about Trine University, ruled that private colleges already are subject to public access laws:

"By permitting private universities to authorize charter schools, the General Assembly has outsourced a government function to a traditionally non-government actor," Britt wrote. "(B)y voluntarily undertaking the responsibility of authorizing a charter school, Trine University has become the functional equivalent of a regulatory entity. Delegation or privatization of a government responsibility does not wipe away the intended purpose of access laws."

The public access counselor’s opinions are advisory only, so Grace College is within its rights to reject calls to release records from the meeting in which the Seven Oaks charter was approved. The college’s position, however, is contrary to the transparency Hoosier taxpayers should expect from entities doing business with the state. The transparency and accountability pieces of Indiana’s school choice environment still need work.