April 21, 2024

Steve Hinnefeld: Charter school goes shopping

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Steve Hinnefeld looks at an example of charter shenanigans in Indiana. Dropped by your old authorizer? Just shop for a new one.

Trine University came to the rescue eight years ago when Thea Bowman Leadership Academy was in danger of losing its charter and being shut down.

Now Trine has revoked the Gary, Indiana, school’s charter, citing academic and governance issues. But another private institution, Calumet College of St. Joseph, has stepped up.

“It’s funny how things have come full circle,” said Lindsay Omlor, executive director of Education One, Trine’s charter-school-authorizing office.

Today’s topic is authorizer shopping, what happens when charter schools jump from one authorizer to another to stay open or find a better deal. Thea Bowman looks to be taking the practice to a new level. It now has its third authorizer in less than a decade.

Back in 2016, the school’s original authorizer, Ball State University, declined to renew its charter, citing management and fiscal issues. The school turned first to the Indiana Charter School Board, which said no. But it found a willing partner in Trine University.

Now Trine has decided it’s done with the school. Its Education One board voted in December to revoke Thea Bowman’s charter. But school officials, perhaps expecting trouble, had already approached Calumet College. The board of CCSJ Charter Authority, the Calumet authorizing entity, approved a new charter in January.

Under a 2015 law intended to discourage authorizer-shopping, the new charter had to be approved by the State Board of Education. That happened Wednesday.

Thea Bowman is an established school that once served over 1,200 students in grades K-12. It now enrolls 840: Over 90% are Black and 75% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Its proficiency rates on ILEARN, Indiana’s math and English/language arts test, are well below state averages. A 2022-23 review by Education One found it met standards for fiscal matters and school climate but not for academic and organizational performance.

The state board vote followed a hearing at which the executive directors of Education One and CCSJ Charter presented their findings. Two young women, both committed to school choice, charter schools and their view of high-quality authorizing, described Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in starkly different terms.

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