This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 6, 2008 - Former Mayor Barton Petersen became known as an education reformer when he did what most mayors have never been able to do. He wrested power from the city's school system by persuading the state legislature to grant the mayor statutory authority to set up charter schools in Indianapolis.
The move was welcomed by many Indianapolis residents and widely praised by fellow mayors, including Francis Slay of St. Louis. He regards charters as building blocks for raising academic achievement and boosting public confidence in the public school system. Now, more than six years later, Indianapolis mayor's office is trying to make the charter schools live up to the promise of a better education for all their students, regardless of their academic preparations, race or family income. That's the hard part.
As of last year, the mayor's office had sponsored 16 charter schools in Indianapolis. Another 19 are sponsored throughout the state by Ball State University, and two have school district sponsorship. By fall, the state is expected to have an additional 13 schools, bringing to 50 the number of charter schools operating in Indiana. The schools now serve about 10,000 students. By contrast, Missouri has about 27 charter schools - 10 in St. Louis and 17 in Kansas City - that serve about 14,000 students.
Like charter schools everywhere, those in Indiana are independent of local school boards, but are supposed to be accountable to their sponsors. The schools are freed from some regulations affecting public schools and are allowed to develop innovative and creative ways to reach and teach students who may not do well in regular schools.
How well the schools are meeting their mandate is unclear. In spite of frequent praise for Indiana's charter schools, there is no easy way to determine whether the schools in operation for at least three years are actually providing kids with a better education than regular public schools. It's hard to compare charters with public schools in Indiana because of the differences in students in these two types of schools.
- 3 percent of students in charter schools have limited English proficiency, compared to 10 percent of those in public schools.
- 11 percent of the charter students are special needs students, compared to 19 percent in regular schools.
- 67 percent of charter kids are eligible for a free or reduced lunch, compared to 83 percent of regular school students.
These differences might suggest that regular public schools aren't keeping pace with charters partly because they serve a more academically challenged students.
Blanket statements about the performance of students in various charter schools can be misleading, even for ones opened at least three years, the amount of time usually needed to judge performance. For example, the 326 students at Irvington Community School charter in Indianapolis, which opened in 2002, have consistently scored high on Indiana's annual assessment exam that's the equivalent of Missouri's MAP. The student population is over 90 percent white, and the number in the free and reduced lunch program is not nearly as high it is in city public schools and in overwhelmingly black charters in Indianapolis.
The brochures about Indiana's charter schools note that the student population is diverse, but the material doesn't stress that many schools with mostly black students don't do as well on the state's assessment test. One notable exception is Indianapolis' Tindley Accelerated School. It's overwhelmingly black and about half the kids are in the free and reduced lunch program, but these youngsters make adequate yearly progress on the state's mandated test.
But students in this school apparently are high performers and aren't the type of kids served by the city's public schools. In other words, it would be unfair to use the black kids at Tindley to suggest that all blacks in charters are doing better than those in Indianapolis' regular public schools.
As a rule, many students in charters are performing better than those in traditional public schools in Indiana. But the data tell only part of the story because they don't necessarily take into account the many variables that may explain why kids in charters may be doing better. The difference in test scores might be more related to family income and the racial composition of the student body rather than superior teaching in charter schools.
An Indianapolis Star report in February, for example, said students in the city's public elementary schools were outperforming those in charters, while kids in charter high schools made better grades than those in regular public high schools. As an example, the report pointed to 10th graders at Herron, a charter school, who performed better than students in nine Indianapolis public schools on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Education-Plus -- Indiana's equivalent of the MAP test.
But a closer look at the demographics of charter and regular high schools suggest many factors may explain why Herron's 10th graders score higher.
- Only 7 percent of Herron's students are in special ed programs, compared to 19 percent of students in regular public schools.
- 32 percent of students in Herron qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, compared to 83 percent of students in regular public schools.
Whatever good news the Indianapolis mayor's office might cite about the city's charter schools, it also concedes that seven out of 12 of them didn't make adequate progress in the 2006-2007 school term.
Some problems in making blanket comparisons between charters and public schools in Indiana probably will be addressed in the state's first comprehensive study of the state's charter schools. It is being done by Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and being released this fall. The center's director and chief investigator, Johnathan Plucker, says that some charters aren't doing as well as supporters claim, but he declines to say more until the study is releaxed. The goal, he says, is to help policymakers and educators figure out what's going well with charters, what's not going so well and how to help the schools do a better job.
He notes that studies from across the country show that charter schools are not doing as well as advocates say they are, "but advocates always oversell their product."
Even so, he urges patience to give the schools time to improve.
"Students in charter schools are facing significant barriers," he says. "Charter schools were designed to help students who are the hardest to teach, poor students, students without intact families. You can't expect them to be honor students after one year."