Indiana is closing in on two decades of so-called school reform, with proponents continuing to claim more is needed. But the changes they've championed, beginning with the 2001 charter school law, now have a track record. A measure of the effectiveness of Indiana charter schools should include those opened in Fort Wayne, where another could soon be shut down. Of six charters opened here, only two would remain.
Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy welcomed its first students in 2012 under the sponsorship of the Fort Wayne Urban League. It was among the first charters authorized by the Indiana Charter School Board, created by the Indiana General Assembly “to grow the supply of high-performing public charter schools throughout the state.”
From the start, Thurgood Marshall has been anything but high performing. Its first letter grade was an F, rising to a C for several years before dropping to a failing mark again in 2015-16. It received F's in both the state and federal grades issued most recently. Jim Betley, executive director of the state board, told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly that a dispute between the school and its management company could be the last straw.
“It's never a good time to close a school, but if we have concerns about the viability of a school we have to weigh the pros and cons of that,” he said. “The circumstances don't even look like they are there or will be there in the foreseeable future to show improvement.”
The school never appeared a viable option for students. The 2011 public hearing on its application was a charade, with only one member of the state board in attendance. Public comments were not recorded and board member William Shrewsberry made the audacious claim that audience members who did not speak represented a “silent majority” in support of the application.
This page noted at the time that American Quality Schools, the management company chosen by the Urban League, had a poor track record overseeing its other Indiana charters and that its bookkeeping practiceswere cited in state audit reports. The school also was pitched in 2012 as an alternative for African-American students in the East Allen County Schools district, but instead opened near two of Fort Wayne Community Schools' top-rated magnet schools.
Mark GiaQuinta was president of the Fort Wayne school board at the time, and now is a Democratic appointee of the state charter school board. As such, he observes charter schools authorized by the state board with a critical eye.
“It was a classic bait and switch. I look at this as a school that never should have been started in the first place,” he said. “There is nothing the children at Thurgood Marshall are getting they wouldn't have received from responsible school leaders at FWCS. It became a case of adult egos over children's needs.”
GiaQuinta said he takes no satisfaction in the state board's decision to withdraw a charter, which could happen at its Dec. 11 meeting.
“Am I confident the school will close? No – there's another charter authorizer waiting in the wings to swoop in and take the money,” he said, referring to the independent colleges also authorized by the state to grant charters. “It's time to put these kids and their parents first and get out of the charter business.”
Charter schools are public schools, permitted to operate outside of many of the regulations placed on traditional public schools in the belief they can respond quickly to student needs. Supporters argue flexibility comes with greater accountability, but Thurgood Marshall is now in its seventh year of operation. Have its students been well served? Will current students be well served if the school is ordered to close at the end of the year or if they continue under another authorizer? Would the millions in tax dollars spent on failed Indiana charters have been better invested in neighborhood schools?
Christel DeHaan, the Indianapolis time-share mogul who was among the biggest charter proponents, argued for their creation in an oped in 2000.
“We must stop inventing spin-master accusations, stop pointing the finger, own up to what truly is and move on to effective solutions,” she wrote.
Her argument now should apply to charter schools: Lawmakers must own up to what truly is and move on to effective solutions.