Senate panel considers proposal to expand charters

March 9, 2011

A legislative standoff in the Indiana House has halted part of Gov. Mitch Daniels' aggressive education agenda, but a Senate committee continued work Wednesday on the Republican governor's proposal to expand charter schools.

The Senate Education Committee heard hours of testimony about the bill and details of a new study that found Indiana students who transferred to charter schools showed greater learning gains than their peers who stayed in traditional public schools.

Opponents argued the proposal would siphon money from traditional schools and give charter schools unfair advantages. But supporters said charter schools — public schools that are free of many state regulations and, often, teacher union contracts — are the right choice for some families.

"It's about high-quality options for our children," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. "This is not about an attack on public education."

The legislation would:

— Expand charter schools. Currently only the mayor of Indianapolis and public universities that offer four-year degrees can sponsor charter schools, and there are more than 60 charter schools in Indiana. The bill would open that up to mayors of several other cities as well as private universities that get approval from the state Board of Education. The bill also would create a state Charter School Board that can sponsor charter schools.

— Give charter schools more financial help. The bill would allow charters to share transportation funding with traditional schools and give charters access to federal funds for financing buildings. Charters would be able to buy or lease for $1 a year unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations. The bill would increase funding for virtual charter schools that provide most instruction online.

— Increase accountability for charter schools. Under the proposal, charter schools that fall into the lowest two categories of state accountability levels for at least three consecutive years could face action by the state Board of Education, including closure.

Sen. Tim Skinner, a Democrat from Terre Haute who's a teacher, said the bill would allow charters to take over traditional public school buildings even if those districts don't want to give them up. And he said traditional schools would be made to share the burden of transportation for charter students at a time of dwindling resources.

The proposal would do more to pit charter schools against traditional public schools, Skinner said.

"I don't know how your vision couldn't see that that would create a problem in terms of cooperation between the two," he told bill sponsor and House Speaker Brian Bosma.

Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said competition would improve all education options and that people shouldn't forget that charters are not private schools.

"Charter schools are public schools — with public school teachers and public school students," he said. "They're just a little different, maybe, than a traditional public school."

A study released Wednesday looked at 42 charter schools in Indiana and found that students who transferred to charters showed greater learning gains for their first two years at the schools, compared to their peers who stayed at traditional schools.

Margaret Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which released the study, said Indiana's charter schools are performing better than charters in many other states.

"The results in Indiana are amazingly positive," she said.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, wondered if an expansion of charter schools would lead to diminished quality.

"If we're doing that well, ought we not be a little careful about any changes that we make going forward?" she asked.

The charter school proposal has already cleared the Indiana House on a 59-37 mostly party-line vote. The Republican-ruled Senate committee could vote on the bill next week, but any changes it makes before voting could complicate the measure's future.

If the bill clears the Senate with no changes from the version that passed the House, it will go directly to the governor for approval. However, lawmakers said they may tweak the proposal next week. That would require new action from the House, which Democrats are currently boycotting.

If the Democrats continue to boycott long-term, that could jeopardize an amended charter school bill.

Another one of Daniels' education proposals — a more controversial voucher bill that would use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private schools — is currently stalled because of the House stalemate. The voucher bill is one of the chief complaints of boycotting Democrats.


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