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TEASLEY: A path out of charter school chaos

November 22, 2014

Kevin TeasleyIndiana’s charter schools offer a quality option for families, but the movement is on unsteady ground today, and understandably so.

After years of being in the minority, reformers suddenly found themselves in the rare position of actually being able to pass legislation during the Daniels administration, and now in the Pence administration.

These actions have been done with the best of intentions, but the result caused chaos, and reasonably so. Legislators added new charter authorizers; implemented new test schedules, new graduation measurements and tests, new standards, and new school accountability measures; and, yes, even created a new competitor called voucher schools.

All the while, schools and authorizers have had to adjust on the fly.

Adding to the challenge, groups wanting to “help” grow the movement work full time to raise scarce philanthropic dollars to create even more competition by recruiting out-of-state “best-in-class” charter models. Two groups approved to create multiple charters—BASIS and Rocketship—have announced they are not coming to Indiana after all.

Schools are opening with a fraction of the students they planned to serve. Phalen Leadership Academy planned for 300 but opened with 150. Indianapolis Academy of Excellence planned for 230 but opened with fewer than 80. Carpe Diem planned on 173 and opened with 87. The list goes on and on.

Inconsistent accountability measures contribute to the chaos. In the past 10 years, the state has gone from a “probation to exemplary” grading model to an A-F model. Neither is accurate nor helpful.

Many charters have too few students (see above) or grade levels to be graded accurately. For example, since 2012, ChristelHouse received an A, an F and a B. KIPP Indy received an A, a C, and this year, a D.

And now the Legislature plans to change the system again. The inconsistency, and some argue political, grading of schools has diminished what credibility the process might have had.

The grades impact authorizer decisions, too. Authorizers have quickly closed schools they recently approved and/or renewed in order to “strengthen the movement.”

Notwithstanding their performance, supporters were stunned when the twice-approved Flanner House and the 4-years-young Project School were closed with little to no notice, nor due process.

Was closure the only option? The sudden closures shook families as well as friendly financial institutions that were left holding the note on dead loans. Today, many families and lending institutions look askance at charter schools.

How can we strengthen the charter movement? First, be patient. Help improve existing schools. Pour the fervor for great schools into existing charter schools. They want your help. Closed schools help no one. Remember, authorizers approved these schools in the first place because they had great applications. Make the application a reality. Success breeds success, and support and stability follow.

Meanwhile, rejoice in the action that takes place every day in these schools to compete with the ever-changing marketplace. Rejoice that we have effective leaders and committed local boards of directors in our community trying to make a difference every day in the lives of the students and families who chose these schools.

With patience, the reforms that have passed will have time to take root and the market of schools and authorizers will adjust accordingly. Improvement and stability should follow.•

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Teasley is founder and president of GEO Foundation, which has charter schools in Gary and Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is starting charters in Louisiana. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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