Ball State’s charter school oversight criticized

Critics say Ball State University hasn't done an adequate job of overseeing the charter schools it sponsors.

A report from a charter school sponsor trade group recommends closing charters that rank in the bottom 15 percent of their state's standardized test scores. Under that standard, 10 of Ball State's 38 charter schools would be closed, The Indianapolis Star reported.

"If you are in the bottom 15 percent, there isn't much debate about whether you are succeeding with your kids," said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers or NACSA, which issued the report. "Nobody was approved to open a charter school saying, 'I want to be in the bottom 15 percent.'"

Twenty of Ball State's charters are up for renewal by March 1, and the head of the university's charter school program, Bob Marra, said low-performing schools shouldn't be renewed.

"We need to not renew them," Marra said. "That's what will happen to some of these schools. We will be taking that step very soon."

A report from Stanford University last week said Indiana has some of the best performing charter schools in the country, but Ball State's oversight holds them back from being even better.

Ball State's tolerance for low-performing charter schools erases many of the gains other charters make and lowers the overall averages, said Stanford's Macke Raymond, one of the study's authors.

"They're not helping. The responsibility is pretty clearly on the authorizer," she said.

Indiana's 66 charter schools are free public schools run independently from school districts. In Indiana, universities and the mayor of Indianapolis have the authority to be sponsors. The sponsors, like Ball State, are responsible for holding the local managers and governing boards accountable and can shut down the schools.

Only a handful of Indiana's charters have been closed in the past decade, and rarely for reasons that are primarily academic, the Star reported. But a 2011 state law expanding charter schools included provisions that demand more from sponsors and allow the state to close schools or switch sponsors.

Ball State has been working with the NACSA for about 18 months to tighten up procedures, making it harder to open a school and to be renewed if it isn't warranted by performance. The university turned down all nine applicants it received this year for new charters because none of them met the new standards.

"I think it got us pointed in the right direction," Marra said. "Next year will seem substantially different."

Charter school managers told the Star that they're doing better than it appears, considering the challenges they face.

Two of Lighthouse Academies' charter schools in northwest Indiana received an 'F' from the state and rank in the bottom 15 percent of Indiana schools on passing state tests.

But Superintendent Chuck Salter said even though the school serves kids who live in deep poverty, all 50 seniors in its first 12th-grade class graduated, and 44 of them went on to four-year colleges. Even with low scores, it outperforms traditional public schools nearby and has a long waiting list, he said.

"While we continue to improve our performance, our ultimate goal is to not only graduate students from high school, but to get them into college," he said. "Our very first effort has been successful. We've delivered what we promised."

NACSA's Richmond said plenty of other charter schools face similar challenges and flourish. The 15 percent standard is a very low bar, he said.

"There are hundreds of schools failing to meet that very low measure nationwide," he said. "That distresses me. It means thousands of kids in those schools are not getting the education they need."

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