How good charter school outcomes in Indiana could have been better

Ball State University
A quarter of Ball State-authorized charters rank in the bottom 15 percent of Indiana's schools.
Photo from INDelight Photography cc.

Before the holiday break, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes gave the charter school movement more good news, this time from Indiana: Students in the Hoosier State’s charter schools, on average, had greater learning gains than their peers in traditional schools. Statewide, charter students gained what amounted to an additional month and a half of learning in reading and math. And in Indianapolis, charter students had about two months on their district-school counterparts in reading and nearly three months in math.

The findings were released just a couple of weeks after the Stanford-based group found similar results for New Jersey students. But the Indiana story was tempered by a more sobering fact: The findings would have been better if not for the performance of schools overseen by one authorizer—Ball State University.

Bad performance at Ball State–authorized charter schools erased many of the overall learning gains Indiana charters made between 2007 and 2011, CREDO concluded. And that poor performance accelerated after 2009, when Ball State authorized many new charter entrants that turned out to be low-performing.

How low-performing? Just a few days ago, the Indianapolis Star reported that a quarter of all Ball State-sponsored schools presently rank in the bottom 15 percent of all schools in Indiana when it comes to test scores. That ranking is notable because it’s the cutoff that drives the National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s One Million Lives campaign, which calls upon states and authorizers to more consistently shut down charters that dwell in that bottom 15 percent.

NACSA’s effort has been well received (and well funded). But now, at least in Indiana, we’ll get to see how seriously authorizers will respond to the campaign. Twenty of Ball State’s thirty-eight charters are up for renewal by March 1. During an interview with the Star, Bob Marra, the chief of Ball State’s charter office, said of the lowest performers, “We need to not renew them.”

Let’s hope he makes good on that promise. Indeed, there is much to indicate that Ball State is now taking its responsibilities as an authorizer more seriously. It has spent the past eighteen months working with NACSA to develop better practices. And it’s working in a political environment that has less patience for lackadaisical oversight of charters—last year, for example, the legislature passed a bill that permits the state to suspend the authority of a sponsor if at least 25 percent of its charter schools remain persistently bad.

But Ball State must still make some hard decisions. Indeed, some of the leaders at those low-ranked Ball State–authorized schools have already told the Star that “things are different now” and “the bad times are behind them.” As NACSA’s Greg Richmond said, “You can go on that way forever if you accept those explanations, and the kids will never get a good education.” With a spotlight shining brightly on an otherwise strong performance in Indiana, Ball State should heed that advice.

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