House Education Committee Chair Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is again championing a bill that would funnel money to Indiana’s charter schools, along with removing other restrictions.
House Bill 1641 encompasses several items that would change how charter schools operate and receive funding in the state. The 30-page bill would increase the Indiana Charter School Board, an entity responsible for accrediting and monitoring charter schools, from seven members to nine and permit charter schools to prioritize enrollment for the siblings of current students of alumni.
But the bill also takes several steps to open new funding opportunities for charter schools.
In a move that Behning himself described as controversial, one provision would shorten the time period in which a school period can sell a vacant school building from two years to 90 days. A separate provision would require school corporations to include charter schools in tax referendums for operations, subject to a vote by area residents.
Some districts, like Gary Community Schools, have seen an influx of charter schools in recent years. Should HB 1641’s new referendum requirements pass, those same corporations would have to give more dollars raised from tax referendums to non-traditional schools. Behning, along with advocates from the Institute for Quality Education, said this will ensure educators at charter schools have the funding they need to provide quality resources to their students.
But Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, former principal and teacher at Gary Community Schools and a long-time defender of the district, said the idea is anything but fair.
“Instead of asking for $100 million…or whatever I’m asking for, I would have to ask for ten times that because I have to share it,” Smith said. “That’s stupid. It’s ludicrous.”
A list compiled by the Indiana Department of Education shows 12 charter schools currently operate in Gary.
J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, echoed Smith, saying the requirement would further prevent public school administrators from improving teacher pay.
Coopman also opposed the provision regarding the sale of vacant school buildings.
“As I see it, we’re trying to find additional money to pay teachers, and then we have a bill that is going to further erode the dollars that are going to public schools,” Coopman said. “I’ve always opposed the notion that school communities that have spent billions of taxpayer dollars on a school building would now be required to sell it to a charter school for $1.”
In response, Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, suggested charter schools offer the state an opportunity to improve student performance on required assessments. He and Behning pointed to recent reports that concluded students who remain in charter schools consistently outperform students at traditional public schools on standardized tests.
For example, a report released in early January by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, a policy research group based out of Stanford University, showed students enrolled in charter schools within the Indianapolis Public School District between 2014 and 2017 had test scores that ranked near the state average. IPS students in traditional public schools consistently underperformed in the same period, according to the data.
Around half of all students in grades 3 through 8 failed each section in the 2018 ISTEP.
“In the private sector, we would be fired, because those results are abominable,” Lucas said.
Lawmakers did not vote on HB 1641 to allow for additional review. Behning said he plans to propose at least one amendment by the next hearing.
Here are five districts that would be most affected by the referendum provision in HB 1641 if it were to become law, according to the fiscal analysis:
Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.