Indiana school choice proponents sold charter schools as setting a new standard in accountability: If they do not perform well, they will be shut down, supporters insisted. How long it takes to shut down a failing charter school is worth examining, but accountability finally appears to have caught up with Thurgood Marshall Academy.
The Indiana Charter School Board voted unanimously last week to close the public charter school at the end of the school year. It opened in 2012, sponsored by the Fort Wayne Urban League and managed by American Quality Schools, a Chicago-based school management company. Thurgood Marshall struggled financially and academically since it opened.
If Fort Wayne's charter-school history is any indication, however, the school might not remain closed. When authorizer Ball State University pulled the charters for Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway, the schools simply converted to private voucher schools. About $3.6 million in state loans made to Imagine were forgiven.
“I'm sorry things turned out the way they did, but at least we have an alternative for the kids,” MASTer Academy board President Pat Sheean said in 2013.
What an alternative. The sponsors turned to Horizon Christian Academy, which took over operation of the two schools but seems to have made no improvements. The Broadway school was absorbed into the Wells Street campus school in 2016. Enrollment grew, but not academic achievement. After consecutive state accountability grades of D's and F's, the state finally prohibited Horizon from enrolling new voucher students this year, but current students continue to receive taxpayer-supported tuition for the school.
With the charter school's switch to a voucher school, financial and operating transparency is lost. Horizon collected$1.38 million in tax dollars for an enrollment of 245 students last year, but little is known about how the money is spent. The school's top two administrators were each paid about $165,000 in 2016, according to federal tax forms required to be filed by nonprofit agencies.
Thurgood Marshall Academy operates out of Come As You Are Community Church on South Anthony Boulevard, so it is well-positioned to reorganize as a voucher school. And James Betley, executive director of the state charter board, seemed to suggest the option when he said last week the state board will contact local private and voucher schools as part of the closure process.
Taxpayers should not be expected to foot the bill for the charter/voucher shell game. At the same time Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders are warning public school teachers there is no money for raises, they continue to ignore the increasing share of tax dollars flowing to charter and voucher schools. They make no new demands for accountability or transparency. Some continue to push for more school choice in the form of “education savings accounts” – direct tax-dollar payments to parents for whatever education services they wish.
Pulling the charter for Thurgood Marshall or any other failing charter serves no one well if students transfer to another school and the clock is reset on accountability. When will lawmakers acknowledge the real cost of school choice, for taxpayers and students?