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Pence touts Indiana charter school expansion

July 28, 2015

Gov. Mike Pence touted a charter school expansion Tuesday that will dramatically increase the number of the privately run facilities in Indiana.

Pence told a conference of charter school teachers that the state will add 22 new charters over the next three years. That will boost the state's total to 86 — a three-quarters increase since 2011, when 49 schools were open.

Unlike traditional public schools, supporters say taxpayer-supported charter schools offer more choices to parents because they have more freedom in setting curricula. They also don't limit students to the public school they ordinarily would be required to attend.

"We want to lower income and location as barrier to receiving a quality education, and public charter schools are an essential element of achieving that objective," Pence said. "Our goal is simply to expand the number of education options throughout the state."

But not everyone is convinced Pence's privatization ideas will actually improve student performance.

Critics, including teachers unions, have long maintained that charter schools are merely an excuse to curtail teacher unions. They add that charters often perform no better than traditional public schools.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who is seeking the 2016 Democratic nomination fgovernor, says she's not necessarily opposed to charters. But Ritz cautioned that they are not the panacea that Pence presents them to be.

Fifty-eight percent of the state's charter schools are underperforming, she said.

"If you're going to have companies come in, in a for-profit manner, you certainly want to make sure that you're going to have achievement," Ritz said after she briefly spoke to the conference.

Meanwhile, Pence and the Republican-dominated Legislature have increasingly shifted state funding to growing suburban districts and away from declining urban areas, where most charters are located. That could lead to a scarcity of resources, pitting traditional urban public schools against charters.

The new two-year state budget includes about $10 million each year toward additional grants for charter schools, giving them money for buildings and transportation that traditional school districts receive through local property taxes. That's about one-quarter of the $40 million per year requested by Pence.

Ritz cautioned that the state might soon have too many schools even as the number of teachers entering the field is declining.

"We're supporting schools with state funding, but then we're going to have a shortage of personnel to actually be able to service those schools," Ritz said.

Pence acknowledged charters don't always perform to expectation, citing five schools that have closed in Marion County. But he insisted they "don't get enough credit for the high quality work that they are doing."

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