Celebrating the 2009 Model Charter School Law

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Tomorrow the National Alliance is releasing a new charter school model law to serve as a resource for state legislators and advocates as they design and implement charter laws. Today we celebrate the accomplishments of the previous model law with our Senior Director of State Advocacy Russ Simnick.

When Indiana first passed its charter school law in 2001, Hoosier legislators had looked for the best charter policies to emulate and the resulting law was considered to be one of the best in America. Consequently, there was little motivation from our allies to strengthen the Indiana law as various other states slowly did over the next several years. When the National Alliance began ranking each state’s charter law against its Model Law for Charter Schools in 2009, advocates and policymakers in Indiana were shocked to learn that the Hoosier state had one of the weaker laws in the country (ranked 29th out of the 40 states with charter school laws).

The Indiana law was lacking in access to facilities and funding equality. It was light on accountability and lacked clarity around authorization. While creating the framework for schools to open, the Indiana law, gave little guidance on what each charter applicant must demonstrate to show their readiness for receiving a charter school and the public taxpayer dollars that follow. There were few pathways to get a charter authorized, as there was only one statewide authorizer. Further, the law did not provide expectations on charter school or authorizer performance, nor have a mechanism in place to hold schools or authorizers accountable if they did not perform to these expectations. In addition, the lack of detail in the law led to nonsensical funding schemes that required charter schools to borrow money from the state for its first semester and any year-to-year growth.

The mere ranking of the state’s law at #29 by the National Alliance generated the attention needed to start putting a decade’s worth of learning on charter policy in action and update the law. Charter champions in the state including Governor Mitch Daniels, Speaker Brian Bosma, Senate Pro Tem David Long, as well as House and Senate Education Committee Chairs Representative Bob Behning and Senator Dennis Kruse, went to work to deliver the top charter school law in the nation to Indiana’s citizens. I note that “improvement” was not the aim—nothing short of delivering the strongest law in the nation was the goal explicitly stated by more than one policymaker listed above.

Transformative change rarely happens overnight. Indiana was no exception. After years of its charter movement playing defense fighting off calls for charter caps and moratoria, the Indiana charter movement went big during the 2011 session of the General Assembly. With Speaker Bosma as lead author, House Bill 2002 passed, addressing many of the issues with the Indiana law. The following year, the National Alliance moved Indiana to #9, at the time the largest single year jump in a state’s rank in the history of the report.

Each year, more weaknesses in the law or in the charter funding formula were tackled. In 2013, Indiana made improvements to its authorization process, closing loopholes that could lead to authorizer shopping, giving schools increased due process at renewal time, and providing clarity to protect teachers and taxpayers when a school is closed. It also took a major step forward by fixing the bizarre first-semester funding scheme that caused charters to borrow millions from the state just to teach the students they enrolled. And recognizing the unfairness of this system, the Legislature wiped clean the more than $90 million debt charters owed to the state as a result.

When the next rankings report was released in 2014, Indiana stood at #2. The major weakness with the law remaining was equality in funding. During the next budget round, led by Governor Mike Pence and supported by House Ways and Means Chair Tim Brown and Senate Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley, charter schools with good academic performance were rewarded with $20 million in per-pupil facilities funding as well as $50 million in low interest (1%) loans for facilities over the next two-year budget. This vaulted Indiana to the place it sits now, #1 on the National Alliance’s state charter school laws rankings report.

The impact of a long-term approach to improve the Indiana law has been significant. Low performing operators have been forced to leave the state. A significant number of low performing schools now close when up for renewal. If authorizers fail to act on low performing schools, the State Board of Education makes them defend their inaction or face serious sanctions. Poor performing schools cannot avoid accountability by jumping from one authorizer to another when closure is certain. Schools now have significantly more financial resources for facilities and access to vacant buildings. As the Indiana story became known, some of the highest performing charter school networks came to the state to open schools. Homegrown schools opened to replace the poor performing charter schools that closed. The law was cited time and again by supporters and critics alike as making these things possible.

Recently, some within the national charter movement have started to make an effort to repeal the types of improvements that moved Indiana’s charter schools from a set of schools with some high performers and many low performers into a national powerhouse that other states emulate. To any policymaker and any charter school advocate in any state reading this blog and contemplating rolling back their state’s law from the strong 2016-Indiana-style law to its weak 2001 version, I urge you to look at the Indiana story (or come visit) and ask yourself this question once posited in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup: “Who are you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”