Senate OKs plan aimed at expanding charter schools

The Indiana Senate has approved Gov. Mitch Daniels' proposal aimed at expanding charter schools, marking the first piece of the governor's sweeping education agenda to clear both the House and Senate.

The Republican-led Senate voted 29-20 for the bill, which would allow more entities to authorize charter schools. The bill allows charter schools to cheaply buy unused buildings owned by traditional school corporations and increases accountability rules for charters, which are public schools free of many state regulations.

Supporters said more charter schools would mean more options for Indiana parents looking for the best education for their children.

"We have a responsibility to help those parents help themselves," said Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Lafayette. "What are we afraid of, offering parents that choice?"

Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the proposal. Opponents say charter schools siphon money away from traditional public schools.

"There's only so much money in the pie," said Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville. "When you add unlimited charter schools to that equation, you get less money for the rest of the schools."

Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, said the bill is part of a larger attack on traditional education by Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennet, both Republicans. He said teacher morale is low across the state as the GOP pushes an aggressive education agenda, which includes the expansion of charter schools.

"We have done irreparable damage, in my opinion, to our public schools," Skinner said.

Supporters point out that charter schools get support from both Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who serves under Democratic President Barack Obama, is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting with Daniels Friday at an Indianapolis charter school.

Bennett said the state has 62 charter schools serving 23,000 students — but that the state needs more charters because demand far exceeds capacity.

"Right now, thousands of Hoosier children sit on charter school waiting lists," Bennett said.

The bill previously had cleared the GOP-ruled House on a 59-37 vote. The Senate made several changes to the House proposal, so the legislation will return to the House for consideration of the latest version.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the Senate tamed the House version of the proposal, which she described as "a charter school bill gone wild."

The Senate version of the bill kept House provisions that would allow a new state board and some private colleges to create charter schools in addition to the current authorizers of school districts, public four-year colleges and the mayor of Indianapolis. But the Senate removed a part of the House bill that would have allowed mayors of smaller cities to create charters. And it removed a provision that would have forced traditional schools to share transportation funding with charters after opponents argued it would be too much of a burden on traditional public schools struggling with budget cuts.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis who is the House sponsor of the bill, said he hasn't decided whether to simply accept the Senate changes or continue to work on a compromise. But he said he was pleased the bill cleared the Senate and that the major parts of the plan remain intact.

The bill is the first piece of Daniels' education agenda to clear both the House and Senate. Daniels' other education proposals would:

— Create the nation's most expansive voucher program directing taxpayer money to private schools. The bill has cleared the House and is scheduled for a Senate committee vote Wednesday.

— Restrict teacher collective bargaining. That bill has cleared the Senate and is pending in the House.

— Implement merit pay for teachers by requiring student achievement to account for part of teacher evaluations. That bill has passed the Senate and is scheduled for a House committee vote Wednesday.

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