By Margaret Menge
(The Center Square) – Indiana has the best charter school law in the country, according to a national association, which has ranked the state tops in the country for charters for the sixth year in a row.
The ranking, by the National Alliance for Charter Schools, looked at states’ charter school laws and rated them on what it calls the “21 components” of a good charter school law.
In the report, “Measuring up to the Model: A Ranking of State Public Charter School Laws,” the alliance highlighted the fact Indiana does not place a limit on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state and also allows multiple authorizers – organizations that review applications for new charter schools and decide whether or not they are approved to open.
Charter schools are public schools that are at least somewhat autonomous, free to provide different models of instruction, and use a different curriculum and teaching methods. They must, however, follow state standards for reading, math and all other subjects, and are required to follow most state and federal education laws. More than 90% of charter schools are non-union.
Indiana was not at the forefront of the charter school movement, and in fact was the 38th state in the country to allow charter schools, making it all the more remarkable that it now has what is considered the strongest charter law.
Former State Sen. Teresa Lubbers was an early advocate for a charter school law in Indiana through the 1990s, and is credited with rallying support for charter schools in the Indiana General Assembly.
The charter school law finally passed both the Indiana House and Senate in 2001, with the enthusiastic support of the Democratic mayor of Indianapolis at the time, Bart Peterson.
It was signed into law that spring by Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, who had said in his State of the State address in January of that year: “Let’s pass a charter school bill this session and get this job done.”
In 2002, 11 charter schools opened in the state. There are now 113 charter schools in operation in the Indiana, according to the state Department of Education, 65 of which are in Indianapolis.
Indiana’s original charter school law allowed three different kinds of groups to authorize charter schools: school districts, state colleges and universities, and the mayor of Indianapolis.
Most of the charter schools that opened in Indianapolis in the first few years were authorized by either the mayor’s office or by Ball State University.
The law has since been strengthened to also allow private college and universities to authorize charter schools, and has allowed a state entity, called the Indiana Charter School Board, to approve new schools.
After Indiana, the state with the next best charter school law, according to this year’s ranking, was Colorado, with Washington state coming in third, Minnesota coming in fourth, and Alabama fifth.
A total of 44 states and Washington, D.C. allow charter schools, and 3.3 million children nationwide now attend charter schools.
But even with the proliferation of new schools, and even given Indiana’s strong charter school law, opening a charter school is no easy task.
Matt Wolf, a founding member of Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville, in southern Indiana, says it took them three years to open a school.
They applied two years in a row to the Indiana Charter School Board, but were denied, with Wolf saying the staff of the ICSB “took a very technical approach” in evaluating their application and seemed uninterested in trying to understand the classical education model.
“We started looking around for other authorizers. We decided we didn’t want to continue to pound our heads against the wall,” he said.
They eventually found a small private college in northern Indiana, called Grace College.
“It was a completely different world working with them as opposed to the ICSB,” he said, adding that an employee of Grace College visited their proposed school building, and also traveled to visit other classical schools around the country, to try to understand the philosophy, curriculum and teaching methods of classical schools.
Another challenge for charter school operators is finding funding for school buildings, as charter schools get the same state funding per student as traditional public schools but do not get a share of local property taxes, which public school corporations usually use to pay debt on a school building, and to buy school buses.
“The biggest area for improvement in Indiana’s law is continuation of efforts to close the inequitable funding gap between charter school students and their counterparts in district public schools” the National Alliance for Charter Schools writes in its report on Indiana.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.