INDIANAPOLIS – Just last month, a virtual charter school serving more than 1,800 kids shut its doors. And last year, four charter schools closed around the state, sending hundreds of students scattering to find a new place to learn.
But there are few rules and regulations on how these closures occur, even though Indiana is seeing more charter school closures than openings.
“I would say that is a concern for any state, because there are hundreds of thousands of kids that need high-quality options. The important word is 'high-quality,'” said Karega Rausch, vice president of research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
“It's a problem if we are not fostering new high-quality schools. It's a concern, but hopefully over time you can reverse that trend.”
More than 30 Indiana public charter schools have closed since 2006, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. At the time of closure, the schools had 8,500 students who were displaced. Also, more than 600 teachers and staffers had to find new jobs.
“It's unfortunate,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick. “But Indiana is pretty darn fortunate to have really strong traditional public schools.”
Indiana legalized charters in 2001 after years of debate. Charters are still public schools but freed from many regulations so they can try innovative approaches to learning.
In 2016-17, about 44,400 students were enrolled in 93 charter schools across the state, representing 3.9 percent of all students enrolled in a public school.
A number of authorizers can grant charters: the governing board of any school district; a state college or university offering a baccalaureate degree; the mayor of Indianapolis; the Indiana Charter School Board; and a nonprofit college or university that provides a four-year baccalaureate or advanced degree program.
“The grand bargain of charter schools is schools get increased autonomy for much higher levels of accountability,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a group pushing education reform in Indianapolis. “There is a moral imperative to close down persistently low-performing schools. Just because a school closes doesn't necessarily mean there is a problem with the system.”
A report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found Indiana opened five charter schools and closed nine. That covered some in 2016 and some in 2017.
Nationally, more than 300 new charter schools opened during the same time period, and there were 238 closures. More than 3.2 million students attend charters around the country.
Rausch said the average closures per year nationally were between 150 and 175 but that has jumped the last four years. He said that's partly because there are more charters overall but also because authorizers and state policy makers have gotten serious about accountability.
He said closing a school is “never easy, and it's never anything anyone relishes.” But he added that “we don't want to let failing schools continue forever.”
Rausch said most closures come at the charter's review period or when the authorizer decides whether to extend the charter. And the closures are usually related to academics, with a few being financial.
McCormick said many closures can be partly blamed on authorizers who aren't rigorous enough.
“Operators need to be well aware of the expectations and consequences,” she said.
Nonrenewal decisions have to be made by March 31 in Indiana so that parents and teachers know in advance of the next school year. But Indiana law doesn't have a notice requirement for charters that close at any other time.
Lawmakers added a provision in 2017 that requires authorizers to have a protocol and communicate with parents and students on transfer of students' records to a new school. But it says only that charters should give “timely notification” to parents, and in written format.
Ron Sandlin, senior director of school performance and transformation for the Indiana State Board of Education, said when a charter school closes, parents are required to report within 30 days of notification where their student will attend.
If a parent does not know or fails to respond within 30 days, the records are sent to the school district of legal residence to ensure they remain accessible, secure and available for transfer if needed.
“The law requires the charter school authorizer to oversee and work with the closing charter school to ensure a smooth and orderly closure and transition for students and parents,” he said. “That is the purpose of this section, and it relies on the state approved authorizers to facilitate it effectively.”
Sandlin conducted the state's first evaluation of charter school outcomes earlier this year and noted a number of closures in the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 school years because several schools' initial charters had come up for renewal.
He didn't calculate a state closure rate, and no other education officials had one. The national closure rate is about 3 percent.
Sandlin said the effect of closures varies. For instance, he said closing a school open for only a few years will have less impact than one open for 15 years.
“The philosophy behind charters is innovation, so it's inherently uncertain,” he said. “Some fail to demonstrate progress, and closure is expected.”
Of Indiana's closures, four have closed in mid-school year – either December or January. That includes the most recent, New Community School in Lafayette in December 2016 following years of financial and enrollment shortcomings.
By the Numbers
• 93 Indiana charter schools
• 44,444 students in Indiana charter schools
• 3.2 million charter students nationally
• 32 Indiana charters closed since 2006
• 8,507 students displaced
• 654 certified employee jobs lost
Source: Indiana Department of Education, Indiana State Board of Education