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HARRIS, RAUSCH & BROWN: Focusing on charter quality not new concept

February 13, 2016

David Harris, Karega Rausch and Brandon BrownIn a Jan. 16 article headlined “Hogsett signals charter school slowdown, focus on traditional public schools,” IBJ explored new Mayor Joe Hogsett’s approach to charter schools in Indianapolis as he begins his administration.

The article’s headline suggested that the mayor is changing directions or backing away from charter schools because he said he would emphasize “quality over quantity” in authorizing new schools.

In actuality, the mayor’s emphasis on quality over quantity in no way should be interpreted as a “slowdown” or a change in direction. On the contrary, it represents a continuation of the philosophies shared by mayors Bart Peterson and Greg Ballard, who, likewise, valued charter school quality over quantity. That’s why, of all charter applications submitted to the Mayor’s Office over the past 15 years, only 20 percent were approved.

What’s more, this focus on quality has produced positive results for students attending charter schools in Indianapolis and elsewhere. Stanford University researchers comparing charter students’ growth with that of peers in traditional district schools found a striking charter school advantage in most cities.

That advantage was even greater in Indianapolis. Stanford found that students attending mayor-sponsored charter schools gain an additional two months of learning in English and three additional months in math over a school year compared to their traditional school peers. Also, state assessments consistently find that students attending mayor-sponsored charter schools substantially outperform their traditional school district peers on ISTEP even though those students are more likely to come from low-income families than their traditional school peers.

Because of this commitment to quality, both Peterson and Ballard were recognized nationally for their stewardship of Indianapolis’ charter schools. Peterson’s administration built a charter schools office focused on high standards and strong accountability, winning the prestigious Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government award. Ballard built on that tradition by growing the number of high-quality schools through a rigorous application process and closing persistently low-performing schools, leading to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers designating the Mayor’s Office as a “model authorizer.”

The strict accountability of the Mayor’s Office and strong performance of its schools should be the norm and not the exception in Indiana. We are enthusiastic supporters of charter schools and the innovations they bring to public education, but we also believe a proliferation of new schools just for the sake of expansion is the wrong course. If more authorizers come online throughout the state, we must ensure they subscribe to the same standards of quality demonstrated in Indianapolis over the past 15 years.

In the quest to provide access and greater educational options, we can never sacrifice quality. Having high-quality schools attracts other successful school operators, and successful schools are more likely to replicate. So a commitment to quality actually leads to a higher quantity of high-performing schools over the long run.

That’s why we are encouraged by Hogsett’s comments and are confident he will oversee the charter schools effort with a steady and discerning hand that will lead to more and better educational opportunities for Indianapolis students.•

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David Harris served as the city of Indianapolis’ charter school director from 2001 to 2006. Karega Rausch served in that role from 2008 to 2011, and Brandon Brown did so from 2012-2015.

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