Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why You Don't Need To Live In Indy To Care About The Project School's Fate

    Elle Moxley / StateImpact Indiana

    Parents and students turn out to support The Project School.

    It may seem like a story that doesn’t have much meaning for anyone outside the I-465 beltway.

    A charter school in Indianapolis fights to stay open after Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard decides to shut it down. He says The Indianapolis Project School’s test scores are low and the finances aren’t straight — charges the school disputes.

    Indy, Indy, Indy. What’s to care about if you don’t live in Indy?

    Plenty. The fight over The Project School cuts to the heart of what makes charter schools different and once again highlights an instance in which reconciling two prevailing values of the state’s current education policy regime is far from simple.

    What Values?

    On one hand: “school choice,” meaning parents should have options about where to send their children to school.

    On the other hand: “accountability,” meaning schools cannot continue to operate if test scores chronically lag behind.

    Leaders of The Indianapolis Project School — who teach to a hands-on, “project-based” curriculum — say they aimed to build a home for students traditional schools had cast aside. The families of more than 350 students chose to send their children there, many of them specifically because the charter school’s teachers say they didn’t focus on testing.

    The school’s test scores raised huge red flags for the mayor’s office, though. Along with alleged financial problems (which school officials say aren’t, in fact, problems), Ballard noted the troubling fact that barely 30 percent of Project School students passed state tests, ranking “among the worst performing schools in Marion County and in the entire state.”

    This is where the conflict between choice and accountability comes in.

    Set aside, for a moment, the protestations of school leaders who say the students perform better on tests the longer they’ve been enrolled at The Project School. The school’s ISTEP+ passing rate has never topped 30 percent — more than 40 percentage points below the state’s average — yet state figures show the school’s enrollment has increased 60 percent since 2008.

    According to Project School board president Daniel Baron, 90 percent of the school’s parents are satisfied with the school.

    “Although public charter schools are exempt from some state and district regulations, they are held to high levels of accountability.”
    —Indiana Department of Education

    “If The Project School was failing its students, why would so many parents who live outside the neighborhood bring their kids there?” commenter TPSparent wrote on our blog. “Why would they be protesting so strongly against its closing? Could it perhaps be that they know TPS [The Project School] is giving their kids a quality education?”

    In other words, parents chose. But they chose a school that didn’t measure up to the mayor’s office’s standards.

    Charters Are Different

    Indiana lawmakers have passed laws making it easier for almost anyone who wishes to start a charter school to start one — from community members to non-profit foundations to national education groups to private companies. Though they get tested and graded like any other public school in the state, state laws give charter schools more “flexibility” to set programming and curriculum as they see fit.

    There’s a price for this flexibility, however.

    “Although public charter schools are exempt from some state and district regulations,” the Indiana Department of Education’s website reads, “they are held to high levels of accountability.”

    Parents and students arrived at an emergency school board meetings holding homemade signs supporting The Project School.

    The mayor’s office says The Project School will likely receive its second straight F under the state’s school accountability law, PL 221. If it were a traditional public school, state law currently says the school would have to earn F’s for six years straight before the school could be taken over by a state-appointed turnaround operator or shut down altogether.

    Though charter schools cannot be shut down or taken over under state law, a school’s sponsor has broad authority to close a school “if the sponsor finds that the charter school is not meeting the goals set out in the charter,” according to the Indiana Department of Education.

    And if a school’s test scores are low, according to another sponsor for charter schools across Indiana, it likely wouldn’t take as long as six years for the charter to be revoked. Indeed, the only charter school that had received more than two straight F’s from the state closed late last year due to low enrollment.

    Most Indianapolis Project School parents likely didn’t choose the school because they believed it would be held to “high standards of accountability.” They chose the school because it felt right for their kids. But in choosing a charter school, whether they fully recognized it or not, high accountability that’s part of the framework that allowed The Project School to exist was folded into their choice from the start.

    Now, with less than two weeks before the school year was supposed to start, the parents of 350 students might have another choice to make — depending, of course, on the fate of their latest legal maneuver. The mayor’s office has set up an enrollment fair Thursday to help them find new schools.

    As one commenter on our Facebook page notes:

    I really know nothing of the school’s finances, and I have serious enough concerns about ISTEP that I would believe that students who have been stable at TPS for more than a year would score well enough as compared to new, transient students — that seems plausible. What I cannot understand is how Ballard expects parents to find alternate schools in two weeks, long after the magnet schools deadlines are all passed. I think it is only fair to the parents and students to give them a year of time to figure out an alternate or prove their worth.
    We wrote about a similar clash of prevailing ideas in the state’s education policy last month, as you may recall.


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