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Charter school charades

That sound you heard Wednesday? That was the sound of the Indiana Charter School Board rubber-stamping a real estate deal to benefit a politically connected Fort Wayne business owner.

How else to explain a 5-1 vote to "replicate" an unproven school that has drawn few students in Indianapolis and met strong resistance from the Fort Wayne community during a public hearing held just 7 business days after local school officials and were notified? The application was approved less than 24 hours after the hearing.

Daryle Doden's Ambassador Enterprises has been looking to draw a charter school tenant to The Summit, its education center at the former Taylor University campus, for more than a year. Another charter school applicant, Sun Academy, proposed leasing space there in a charter school application last year, but withdrew its bid. (Sun Academy has submitted a letter of intent to offer another application this spring, along with Global Village International Inc., so as many as three new charter schools could be opening in Fort Wayne next fall.)

Doden is the father of Eric Doden, a former GOP candidate for mayor and Gov. Mike Pence's newly appointed director for statewide economic development. Daryle Doden and his wife contributed $15,500 to Pence's campaign. Daryle Doden's company will be paid $1,000 per student up to 550 students, plus "associated property costs", for providing space for Carpe Diem charter school.

Claire Fiddian-Green, a former Eli Lilly executive who is now executive director of the state charter board, justified the quick vote on the proposal as part of the "mini application" process required under the board's rules to replicate the charter model in another community -- one in which it was not originally proposed. She said Wednesday the Fort Wayne community is in "tumult."

That's apparently because the community doesn't view the Carpe Diem deal as the great educational opportunity the school's founder tried to sell at Monday's hearing. In fact, testimony at the hearing showed the community knows exactly what the deal is – hundreds of thousands of dollars being sucked out of area school districts as rent paid to Ambassador Enterprises.

To help sell the plan, Carpe Diem officials drove nearly a dozen students round-trip from their Indianapolis building on an icy, wet school night to tell a skeptical crowd how much they love their school.

"We're not IPS," the Fort Wayne audience responded.

The so-called school reform crowd backing charter-school expansion insists there should be no excuses for public schools to improve, but they offer plenty of excuses themselves.

Carpe Diem Meridian drew just 87 students last fall, but the reformers insist it was because of problems finding a location. While the reformers wield standardized test scores as a club to punish traditional public schools, they have none to show for Carpe Diem Meridian. The charter board rushed through the application before students there have taken the standardized state tests.

Jamie Garwood, appointed to the state charter board by President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, voted for the new Fort Wayne school. In an interview after the hearing, she quickly dismissed the strong opposition as limited to FWCS teachers and administrators.

"The general public doesn't really know a lot about this," Garwood said. "They didn't really know a lot about the proposal. I think the general public in Fort Wayne still doesn't really have a handle on what charter schools are, or what the options are, or what a high-performing charter is, or what they look like or how do we, as consumers, find that."

If the Fort Wayne community doesn't know enough about charter schools after more than a decade of hosting them, it apparently should trust Garwood and others to make the decisions about opening them here.

I wrote a story nearly three years ago about the diminishing amount of local control over Indiana schools. It's fair to say now that local control has been almost completely eliminated.

Because of its location, the new school will draw primarily from Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools. But it could also draw students from Southwest Allen, Northwest Allen, Northern Wells, Huntington and Whitley counties, and more. Its online focus and a Monday through Thursday school schedule will inevitably attract some students.

Ambassador Enterprises' proposed contract puts it in the unique position of serving not only as landlord, but also in marketing the school. The more students it draws, the more it collects in rent, given the $1,000 per-head fee.

But each student it draws from a northeast Indiana school means thousands of dollars pulled from an existing school. The loss reduces the ability of the existing schools to offer comprehensive programs – well-stocked libraries, guidance counselors, science labs, drama and music, sports programs and more. Carpe Diem's computer instruction model includes none of those features. The Indianapolis school has only five teachers for grades 6-10. Its Arizona school at one time had one math teacher for 240 students in grades 6-12.

Garwood is correct that people don't really understand charter schools. The reformers have cleverly marketed them as philanthropic or nonprofit endeavors. All are supported almost entirely by taxpayers, with money pulled from existing schools. When traditional schools are closed, as Elmhurst High School was two years ago, the frustrated supporters never seem to grasp the connection between the growing number of new charter schools and the loss of financial support for established districts.

The legislation that created the Indiana Charter School Board two years ago received only one Democratic vote – from Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, a self-proclaimed education reformer. That's because school reform is about politics, not students.

All of northeast Indiana's GOP delegation voted to approve the state board, a poorly disguised end-run around the stricter standards now being used by Ball State Universityand the Indianapolis mayor's office in their authorization reviews. Those northeast Indiana lawmakers, Sen. David Long included, should explain to their local school districts why it was a good idea.

The ALEC-backed "parent trigger" bill proposed this session is the companion piece to the legislation. It allows charter supporters to collect signatures from parents in demanding a school takeover.

School reformers won GOP support by promising lawmakers that charter schools would be restricted mostly to IPS and Gary. But Fort Wayne's experience this week should make them all very nervous. If a well-connected property owner wants to tap into a steady flow of tax dollars by housing students in one of his buildings, there's nothing locals can do to stop him.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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