An unprecedented expansion of charter schools over the past five years—centered heavily in Indianapolis—is expected to push the number of privately managed public schools in Indiana to 100 this fall for the first time.
Advocates are celebrating the breadth of new options for families to choose from, including more good schools in areas where children score poorly on state tests. But, in Indianapolis, the steep growth has begun to raise questions about whether there are enough students to fill all the new seats.
“It is a milestone I would celebrate but only in the context of quality,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, the president of the Indianapolis Public Schools board and a former state legislator. “I don’t draw lines between quality district schools and quality charter schools. I think that’s the relevant point. I want Indiana to have more quality schools.”
Charter growth in Indianapolis has accelerated enrollment losses by IPS, where the enrollment is down more than 10,000 students in the last decade, to about 29,500. That’s a drop of about 25 percent.
But in the last few years, new charter schools have also struggled to meet their enrollment goals, notably Tindley schools and Carpe Diem, so local schools advocates are watching to make sure that demand for new schools keeps pace with supply.
With 100 charter schools, Indiana will have more than twice as many as it did five years ago, when lawmakers pushed for more schools by voting to give private universities and a new Indiana Charter School Board the right to approve new charter schools.
Previously, Ball State University or the Indianapolis mayor’s office were the only major organizations that could sponsor a new charter school. They oversaw all of the state’s charter schools with the exception of a handful that were sponsored by local school districts.
Sullivan helped write the 2011 law to create the state charter board, but opposed the portion that expanded sponsoring to private universities. She argued that more charter schools has had a good impact overall.
“It’s good to not have a monopoly and have other options within the public sector,” Sullivan said. “I believe charter schools have nudged and prodded the district into making change that have benefited families.”
There were 49 publicly funded but privately managed charter schools in Indiana when the 2011 law first passed. Now, there are 94 charter schools already open, six more planning to open for the first time this fall and another 10 in the pipeline to open in 2017.
Neighboring states, especially Michigan and Ohio, were quicker to legalize charter schools, and more sponsors in those states led to far more schools approved. Michigan, which legalized charter school in 1993, has about 300. Ohio passed its charter law in 1997 and has 400 charter schools. Both states have been criticized for having too many poor-quality schools.
Indiana’s law permitting the free, publicly funded but privately run schools to operate independently from local school districts didn’t pass until 2002, and gatekeepers in Indiana have been more assertive about holding high standards.
Ball State and the mayor’s office both turned away about 75 percent of applicants to open schools, meaning Indiana’s charter growth was slower. That has meant fewer charter school failures than other states.
Under former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, the city more than doubled its portfolio of charter schools to 38 this year, up from 18 when he took office eight years ago, but the last 12 months have not seen the same demand for new schools.
Since Democrat Joe Hogsett took office in January, replacing Ballard, the city has received no applications for new charter schools —a rare occurrence.
Hogsett’s education director, Ahmed Young, said Hogsett intends to continue sponsoring charter schools. He blamed the ebb in applicants on uncertainty with the mayoral transition. He expects it to pick back up in 2016-17.
“I think it’s an aberration,” he said. “We expect a robust application cycle this fall. We are not focused specifically on the number of charters. We are more focused on our current schools and that they are performing well. We can’t just grow for the sake of growth. We have to be strategic about how the charter sector grows.”
Ball State also saw fewer charter school applicants during the last school year. The university had only two schools apply and its charter school team turned down both of them. University officials speculated that less federal start-up aid might be a factor.
Karega Rausch, who chaired the Indiana Charter Board until last month, said a drop in applications has been happening nationally, but charter advocates are not sure why. So it makes sense that some sponsors may experience dips in the number of applications. Rausch works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter schools based in Chicago.
The average number of applications received by sponsors nationally dropped the last four years, from more than 18 in 2011-12 to fewer than 10 in 2014-15, he said. The number of new charter schools that opened nationwide in 2015-16 was 404, down from 640 in 2013-14.
“Indiana is not immune to the trend nationally,” Rausch said. “A lot of people are trying to understand why that is.”
But at least for the next two years, Indianapolis will still see steady charter growth.
Five of the nine schools the state charter board approved to open in the next two years are in Indianapolis.
And the state charter board has become a major sponsor of new Indianapolis charter schools. The bulk of charter schools it has approved—10 of the 14 that will be operating this fall—are in the city.
Whether demand for charter schools is dropping remains to be seen, Sullivan said.
“[Parents] are looking at IPS again who had previously not been looking at IPS,” she said. “But also the expansion of vouchers has had an impact on charters in the same way it’s had an impact on districts. If you are a parent inclined to look for choices, now you have another choice.”
Neither state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz’s Indiana Department of Education office nor her re-election campaign responded to several requests for comment about charter school growth. In the past, Ritz has raised concerns about the growth of school choice programs in Indiana.
To Sullivan, the charter school champion turned school board president, charter school growth will always be limited by demand and the ability of good programs to expand.
IPS, for example, has a long waiting list for its Center for Inquiry magnet schools, but is adding new CFI schools slowly to make sure there are enough principals and teachers with CFI experience to ensure new schools maintain a high level of quality.
In a similar way, she said, charter school sponsors need to pay attention so they can shift to offer more of the kinds of schools parents want—and fewer of those that they don’t.
“That’s kind of what’s supposed to happen,” she said. “When there is less demand then you know that’s enough. Parents are telling you they are not looking for that.”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.