It’s been an interesting year for schools in Indiana’s hinterland and StateImpact has been there through school closures, referendums, and even the birth of a new kind of Indiana school.
In this segment of our “Year in Review” series we revisit the most important news from Indiana’s dusty farm towns and soybean fields.
Charter schools are key pieces of the education policy overhaul championed by Governor Mitch Daniels and many state lawmakers. During the last legislative session, a number of bills were passed to help support the expansion of charter schools in Indiana. However, for families living in rural areas, they still remain a distant option.
As you’ll see in our map, only 19 of Indiana’s 92 counties contain at least one charter school. Those living in rural areas would have to travel more than 40 miles, in many cases, to get to the nearest charter schools. Those 19 counties have a little more than half the state’s residents.
The majority of charter schools are located in the Indianapolis metropolitan area and around Gary and East Chicago.
This trend is beginning to slowly change. There are now a handful of charter schools in rural Indiana, and their numbers number may soon expand.
A number of districts in rural areas have been forced to shutter school buildings over the last four years and under a law passed during the last legislative session charter schools are given priority in purchasing or leasing those abandoned facilities. This will likely lead to a number of charter school opening in unexpected places.
This story was brought together with the help of staff at National Public Radio.
School officials at many of Indiana’s smallest districts are having a hard time balancing their checkbooks. There is mounting evidence that this is part of a concerted effort by Governor Mitch Daniels and the General Assembly to force consolidation onto districts with fewer than two thousand students. For the few attempting a referendum, it’s a battle for survival.Earlier this year, StateImpact traveled about a half hour north of Indianapolis to a Sheridan Community Schools PTO meeting. School board member Todd Roberts was addressing voters. He wasn’t calling for reelection. He was making a simple request of his constituency: give the district $665,000. The question was going to appear on the November 8 ballot.
The state cut roughly $1 million from the district’s budget over the last two years. After laying off ten of the district’s 70 teachers and even closing an elementary school, the school board was a little desperate.
“A lot of people have accused this school board of scare tactics.” said Roberts during the meeting. “You’re trying to scare people into doing this. I couldn’t disagree more. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t lay out all the possibilities.”
Sheridan had two options – pass a referendum or consolidate.
Voters in the small Indiana town chose to give the school board a few more years of life. For the next seven years, residents will see a hike in their property tax bill to account for the new revenue and the district will be able to absorb up to $650,000 per year in additional funding cuts.
However, experts with Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy warn referendums are not necessarily a permanent solution to many districts’ school funding problems and may only represent a band aid for schools plagued with diminishing enrollment and low property values.
Early on, StateImpact took on the challenge of literally starting a new kind of school. The rural charter school. Over the months, the project took on the name “SimSchool” for its resemblance to the classic computer game SimCity.
The idea was simple. We would create an entirely new school in the middle of a cornfield near the small rural town of Worthington, Indiana. We would pretended to purchase everything from a new school building to toilet paper to a hot food bar for the cafeteria. Everything we could think of that might be needed to start a school.
We then took our fake school and submitted it for approval to the real chartering agency at Ball State University. Let’s just say there are still no charter schools in Worthington, Indiana.
However, something unusual arose directly out of our reporting.
Canaan Community Academy in Canaan, Indiana (Pop. 99) will be opening its doors in August after receiving approval from Ball State to become a charter school. A real charter school. Residents in the small Indiana village lost their town school after the local district decided to close it due to low enrollment. A few months later, they happened upon a story from a bumbling StateImpact reporter trying to stumble his way through the process of starting a small town charter school.
They had found SimSchool and this report led them to the state’s only other rural charter school. The Rural Community Academy in Sullivan, Indiana, where the people of Canaan were able to find the guidance they need to follow through with their plan to reopen the closed building as a charter school.