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Beware schools’ charter shopping

In 2011, the Indiana legislature passed important legislation to expand the number of quality charter schools and to hold charter schools more accountable for their performance. Unfortunately, that legislation also created a loophole that allows failing charter schools to avoid that stronger accountability, a loophole that some of those schools are now trying to use.

Before 2011, there were really only two ways that parents, educators or community organizations could be approved to open a charter school. If you wanted to open a charter school in Indianapolis, you applied to the mayor’s office. If you wanted to open a school elsewhere, you applied to Ball State University.

You could apply to your local school board, but school boards rarely approved new charter schools.

Over 10 years, this arrangement produced more than 50 charter schools – not nearly enough schools to reach the many thousands of students who drop out of school each year and the many thousands of others who graduate without the skills they will need to succeed in college or a job.

Many of those charter schools were doing a great job, but not all of them. Some were no better, or even worse, than the traditional public schools in their communities. Others had serious financial problems. This winter Ball State took action. After a comprehensive review of academic, financial and operational data, Ball State informed seven of those failing schools – all rated “F” or “D” on the state’s accountability system – that their charters would not be renewed at the end of this school year. Without a charter, their schools would close.

But there’s a loophole. In an effort to expand quality charter school options, the 2011 legislation established new charter school-authorizing bodies. One was the Indiana Charter School Board, a new public body with the power to authorize charter schools throughout the state. The governor, state superintendent of public instruction and legislative leaders appoint its board members. The legislation also empowered private universities to approve charter schools. In the past year, Trine University and Grace College each approved one charter school.

Now the seven schools that are losing their charter from Ball State are shopping, seeking a new charter from the Indiana Charter School Board, Trine, Grace or their local school board. It’s a race to the bottom, as schools that failed a rigorous review by Ball State search for an authorizer with lower standards.

As they pitch other authorizers, these failing schools will come up with many explanations for their low performance. They serve a lot of low-income students. Their students come to them far behind academically. They’re popular with parents. Other public schools are no better. They need more time.

Indiana’s parents and taxpayers should be wary of these arguments. These groups were given a charter because they said they could do better. They knew that many of their students would be low income and come to them behind. But they said they could succeed; none of them proposed to run a “D” or “F” school.

This is a moment of truth. We cannot create more good schools for children by accepting more failing schools. In the end, we will get the quality of schools we demand. If we accept low performance, we will continue to get low performance. If we maintain high expectations and standards, our children will get the schools they need to prepare them to succeed in life.

Greg Richmond is president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.