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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Imagine Schools on Broadway is one of three charters that will not be renewed when their contracts expire June 30, Ball State University said Tuesday.

Welcome charter ruling


When union leader Albert Shanker championed charter schools as teacher-directed laboratories of reform in a 1988 address, the president of the American Federation of Teachers probably didn’t envision the disappointing form some of those schools would take 25 years later.

But a handful of charter leaders, including those at Ball State University, are taking a hard-line approach in returning to the original promise of public charter schools. Ball State, with the assistance of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, has realigned its policies and procedures to the national organization’s standards, declining to renew the charters for seven of its 42 charter schools, including all three of its Fort Wayne schools.

An overdue move, but a necessary one. The very premise of Indiana’s 2001 charter school law was that charter schools that did not meet academic expectations would close. Many have not met those expectations but remain open.

Timothy L. Johnson Academy, Imagine MASTer Academy and Imagine Schools on Broadway have posted consistently disappointing academic records, each faring poorly under the state’s new letter-grade accountability system. Both Imagine schools received an F and Timothy L. Johnson earned a D.

In addition, the Imagine schools have struggled with governance issues and are entangled in troubling real estate deals that send hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in lease payments to a Missouri-based investor.

EPR Properties, with holdings in movie theaters, ski resorts and water parks, leases the former YWCA campus to Imagine MASTer Academy. The academy budgeted $790,000 for rent this year alone and also expected to receive a $250,000 facilities grant from the state.

Interestingly, the only school closed by Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools in its 10 years of charter oversight was a Fort Wayne school – Urban Brightest Academy. A recent study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University singled out Ball State charters from schools sponsored by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and other Indiana charters, citing low performance in math achievement.

But in choosing not to renew seven charters, in granting conditional approval to another seven and in rejecting the requests of nine new charter applicants, Ball State signals a new direction in its oversight.

“None of these schools should be surprised,” said Bob Marra, a former Indiana Department of Education official who now heads BSU’s charter school office. “We’ve advanced through methodical and iterative steps over the last two years to develop a framework that we believe will drive strong performance in our charter schools. And we’ve been transparently communicating with the schools about it since the summer.”

The schools have until early February to appeal, followed by a hearing before a BSU panel and final decision by BSU President Jo Ann Gora.

“That’s pretty aggressive action on Ball State’s part,” said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “I give them credit for not shying away from taking action on almost half of the charters up for renewal.”

Richmond said the university reached out to NACSA for help in improving its oversight of charter schools.

“It was a lot of initiative on their end and awareness that some of their schools weren’t doing too well,” he said. “It leads to what you see today – recommending renewal for those schools that are working; non-renewal for those that aren’t.”

“It’s gratifying that the university officials recognized the fact that those charters served no useful purpose within the boundaries of Fort Wayne Community Schools, since our system is providing for the needs of our students and doing so more effectively than the Ball State schools,” said Mark GiaQuinta, president of the FWCS board.

NACSA has launched a campaign, One Million Lives, calling on charter school authorizers to lead the way in closing failing charter schools and opening strong schools. Ball State’s move is a good step in answering that challenge.