The chair of Indiana's House Education Committee, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, likes to call charter schools “public schools,” especially when he is pushing for more funding for them. He should know better.
The charter school statute – developed under his watch – exempts these schools from much of the state law that governs public school districts. Charter schools' lesser mission, minimal oversight, lack of transparency and reduced requirements for teacher certification represent an erosion of protections for children and taxpayers.
The most basic difference from the public school system is frequently skipped over. Charter schools do not have a responsibility to serve all children in a community.
Admission is through application and lottery, with spots for a limited number of students.
In contrast, our public school districts must serve all students in our communities.
Charter school organizers attempt to maximize resources for their operations and, in some cases, for for-profit contractors, diverting funds from public schools without taking into account the effect this has on the education of the vast majority of children.
The nature of the lottery system, combined with sibling preference, means that engaged families with more resources are drawn out of the public schools, leaving a higher concentration of need there, but less money.
Not all charters offer transportation or lunch. Charters serve fewer homeless students, English language learners and students with severe disabilities. In Bloomington, the Project School has a student population with 17 percent receiving free lunch, down from 38 percent in its first year. In the Monroe County Community School Corporation, 31 percent of students qualify.
Although publicly funded, charters are privately managed. They appoint their own boards. Often the schools' authorizers are hours away. In this way, charters remove the community's oversight of local education. Their disenfranchising presence hits hardest in high-poverty, urban, nonwhite areas, but is felt statewide.
Virtual charters draw from most Indiana counties. Two virtual schools were recently accused by their authorizer of receiving state money for thousands of students who were not actually taking classes. The Indiana House GOP budget, released before that news, projects that one of those schools would get $43 million in 2021.
Elected school boards feel the heat when parents object to a decision or a policy. Charter boards don't have to respond. If you are a parent objecting to curriculum, discipline or rules about student appearance, you may find yourself wanting a public board as your audience.
While charters are subject to the public records act, in practice they make less information available. Public school districts tend to list board members, meeting minutes and budgets on their websites, and to have their meetings reported in the media. This is the exception rather than the rule for charters.
Teacher-licensing requirements are weaker for charter schools. The license to teach at a charter school can be obtained with a bachelor's degree and either a B average or a passing grade on the licensure test. It does not require coursework in pedagogy and child development, or participation in student teaching.
Charter teachers in Indiana are at-will employees. They lack a collective bargaining agreement and due process protections, making it harder to speak up and advocate for themselves, students and the work/learning environment.
Finally, between a fifth and a quarter of Indiana's charters have closed, disrupting education and relationships in children's crucial early years.
Indiana owes its citizens truly public schools. Publicness has to do with the responsibility to provide all children an equitable, well-rounded education that reflects state standards and local aspirations. It involves legal mandates, transparency and community voice. Schools that answer to our communities are good for our communities and essential to our democracy.
Jenny Robinson has three children in public schools and is chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County.