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Reform criticism from the reformers

Ouch. This has got to hurt. The Center for Education Reform is calling out Indiana and a handful of other states for new laws eroding charter school quality.

Understand, first of all, that the Center for Education Reform is as reform-friendly as it gets, with a board of directors that includes one of the original education privatizers, Chris Whittle.

The center is a cheerleader for choice, charters and just about everything Indiana's reform-loving state leaders have embraced. The organization ranked the Hoosier State No. 1 on its recent "Parent Power" index. But Indiana is cited as going a step too far in its rush to open charter schools (generally, public schools without union teachers).

"The use of the state charter commission model has begun to stymie charter growth, create new bureaucracies and discourage innovators and parents from participating," according to CER's new report, "Commissions have also created a new 'cottage industry' of consultants who are readily employed and move from state to state reviewing charter applications from communities which they often know little about, and from organizations and individuals of whom they have no personal knowledge."

Here's what The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly wrote a year ago about outside consultants hired by the Indiana Charter School Board:

The Indiana Department of Education initially refused to reveal the names of the people helping the Indiana Charter School Board evaluate applications. But late Friday afternoon, a list of the people was provided.

They include six people and one limited-liability corporation scattered around the Midwest, including Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota, who appear largely to be charter school advocates.

Contracts for these experts - and therefore their pay - could not be located in the state's contract database Friday.

A search of the database did find a contract between the board and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The summary said the Indiana Charter School Board would be under scrutiny and that contracting with the national group would lend credibility to the inaugural application review process.

"The use of nationally recognized charter authorizing experts may help to address doubts about the rigor and independence of the application process," the contract said.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers specifically was to identify, contract with and oversee third-party experts who will augment the application review process.

Also, for a small fee, the association was to oversee the contracting process and play the role of project manager to ensure that the expert reviewers are adhering to the application review timeline.

The original contract was for $23,700 running from October 2011 through January 2012. An addendum added $5,000 to the contract and extended it through January 2013.

(Charter School Board Executive Director Claire) Fiddian-Green said this year the state is dealing directly with the outside experts that NACSA identified during the inaugural round of applications in 2011.

She confirmed they are under contract and are paid with state taxpayer dollars.

But she was concerned that revealing the names might affect the ongoing reviews.

"I am happy to be as transparent as possible," Fiddian-Green said.

Todd Huston, chairman of the Indiana Charter School Board, also initially would not give out information regarding the outside experts, saying only it is helpful to have national specialists review the financial and educational aspects of a charter school application.

In addition, the Indiana Charter School Board paid a North Carolina-based consultant nearly $87,500 to review its accountability plan and to "consult with the board to design an innovation-focused supplement to the board's Request for Proposals".

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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