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South Bend charter school becomes latest model of charter controversies

A charter school in South Bend could be the latest example in how charter schools skirt accountability.

Charter schools in Indiana are under increasing scrutiny as more are found to be underperforming, particularly when compared to traditional public schools. In addition to failing our students, charter schools are failing taxpayers.

Dodging accountability
Career Academy Charter School opened in 2011 and faltered from the beginning. In fact, the charter school scored a school accountability grade of “F” for three consecutive years

Last year, Career Academy High School submitted a “New School Improvement Baseline request” to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) after changing authorizers. A new baseline would wipe the slate clean for the failing charter school, even assign a new school number with the IDOE.

That request, however, was denied. It was determined the school was requesting the new baseline to “avoid accountability,” which is criteria on which the new baseline request can be denied.

However, following an appeal, the state board’s general counsel is now recommending the charter school be granted its fresh start and erase its four-year streak of “F” school accountability grades. The state board will be voting on the recommendation at its Wednesday meeting.

Charter schools and their supporters in the corporate education reform movement have consistently pushed for strict accountability for traditional public schools by demanding state takeover of traditional public schools. A policy, by the way, that has been an utter failure. Five of the six state takeover schools have continued to be “F” schools despite being run by outside management companies for the past four years.

To date, no charter school has been forced into state takeover.

A consistent voice in recent years for corporate education reform in Indiana has been the Institute for Quality Education (I4QE) and its’ sister groups Hoosiers for Quality Education and Network for Quality Education.

“We believe all schools should be held accountable and applaud the state’s charter school authorizers for making the difficult decisions to close consistently poor performing charters,” said Caitlin Gamble from I4QE.

The only problem—this isn’t happening with charter schools.

Charter shopping
Charters shopping for authorizers has a long history in the state. A law was passed last year, aimed at curbing charter schools’ ability to shop for authorizers, has yet to be really tested–until this week with the state board’s decision to possibly grant Career Academy’s request. The law does little to stop shopping by new charters like Seven Oaks Classical School in Bloomington.

In 2015, the Indiana legislature shortened the window for public schools to be taken over by the state from having six consecutive years of a grade of “F”, down to three. Likely facing a state takeover, that same year Career Academy sought a fresh start and terminated its contract with its authorizer, Ball State University, and shopped for a new one. Career Academy found Trine University.

Since being granted as a charter authorizer by the General Assembly, Trine has a track record of picking up charter schools that Ball State has dropped or recommended for closure. Another recent example is Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, which Ball State recommended for closure due to poor performance.

Unelected school boards
The administration of charter schools through their school governing boards is often lacking in transparency and accountability. Traditional school boards are held accountable to taxpayers and the public through elections; charter schools have school boards run by handpicked members, many of whom aren’t members of the community at all, or even Indiana residents.

Three of the nine board members of Career Academy are members of the Garatoni family, which is led by Larry Garatoni. Garatoni is the board president, his daughter Lori Smith and son Mike Garatoni, are also on the board. Both were handpicked by board president Garatoni and approved in one meeting.

To further worsen transparency concerns, according to Career Academy’s request to change charter authorizers, an accountant working for Garatoni’s investment firm has been the school’s CFO since 2014 after the school’s own CFO resigned. It’s unclear if this is still the arrangement.

Political connections
Politics in Indiana’s education reform movement has been well documented, particularly in its early days with elected leaders and political donors working towards similar goals.

In addition to founding Career Academy, Gartoni is the CEO of HQ Venture Capital and has donated more than $350,000 to Republican statewide candidates over the years and $10,000 last year to Hoosiers for Quality Education, the Institute for Quality Education’s PAC.

Gov. Pence attended the opening of Garatoni’s second charter school in South Bend, and Garatoni thanked Pence for working to expand charters in Indiana.

Draining funds from traditional public schools
Critics of charter school growth cite the draining of public funds from community based, traditional public schools without evidence or analysis to support charter conversion is better for our kids. And in many cases, charter schools recruit students to leave a well-run school to attend their failing schools.

This has been the case with Career Academy, too.

According to South Bend Community Schools, its enrollment dropped 827 students last year. Their school board president attributes the drop to the opening of Career Academy and Success Academy Charter Schools. Both schools spent more than $98,000 on radio and television ads, as well as marketing and other related services, from Jan. through July last year.

Calls for real charter school reform
As more concerns are raised about the effectiveness of charters, as more taxpayer investments are dedicated, as more charters continue to operate without an independent study of how charter schools growth is affecting Indiana’s community-based public schools, ISTA will continue to push for more safeguards that are dependent on student learning thresholds, protect taxpayer dollars, and require transparent, public operations.

There’s no doubt that there are some locally-run charter schools that are serving kids well. However, data informs us that those schools are in the minority as the vast majority are still being graded “D” or “F” in Indiana with insufficient transparency and accountability and an abundance of gaps and loopholes allowing their continued operation.

Both ISTA and lawmakers have the best interests of Hoosier students in mind. We look forward to working together to ensure charter schools are held to the same standard as community-based public schools, because if we don’t, the same questions and concerns raised with regard to the Career Academy school in South Bend will continue to persist.