In 1991, the first law allowing public charter schools was passed in Minnesota.
Today, more than 3.2 million students attend over 7,000 public charter schools in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Public Charter Schools are excelling in educating students with public charter schools representing seven of the top 10 public high schools in US News and World Report Best High Schools.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), over the past five years, enrollment at charter schools has grown by 62 percent and now represents over 6% of all students in the United States.
Although late to the game as the 38th state to authorize public charter schools in 2001, Indiana’s law provided a model charter school environment:
- It allows multiple entities to authorizer charter schools;
- It doesn’t place a cap on charter school numbers; and
- It requires an equivalent level of accountability as public district schools.
Since that time, policy makers have continued to refine and improve Indiana’s public charter school laws, and the state has been recognized as having the best charter school laws in the nation by NAPCS for the last three years.
But looking behind its well-regarded law and policy environment, how well are charter schools in Indiana doing?
Indiana has approximately 100 charter schools that are a mixture of both traditional “brick-and-mortar” charter schools and schools that are 100% virtual (online instruction). Up until 2018, there were also a third group of schools who were providing a hybrid model of 50% online instruction and 50% in class instruction. However, those schools closed their doors at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.
Only 4% of students in Indiana attend a public charter school—below the national average of 6%. Indiana’s public charter school enrollment is markedly eclipsed by other states like Arizona where 16% of all students attend a public charter school – or DC where a whopping 43% of students are enrolled in a public charter school.
However, looking deeper at the district and city level, in some areas of the state, public charter schools are flourishing.
Forty-three percent of all charter school students in Indiana reside in four school districts: Indianapolis Public Schools, Gary Community School Corporation, South Bend Community School Corporation and Anderson Community School Corporation.
In fact, two school systems have some of the highest percentages of students attending charters in the U.S. In Gary, 46 percent of students attend a charter school, the 5th highest, and Indianapolis is not far behind with 33 percent of all students within the district attending a charter school — the 10th highest charter school percentage in the nation.
Indiana’s public charter schools take the same set of standardized tests (I-STEP, I-READ & ECA) as traditional public district schools. They also receive a grade on the same A to F rating system. This standardization allows for an easy comparison of academic performance.
Several charter schools have seen strong academic success. According to US News and World Report, the top two high schools in the state of Indiana are public charter schools: Signature School in Evansville and Herron High School in Indianapolis. Additionally, the Excel Centers (schools focused on adults who have dropped out of High School) has been touted as a national example and is being implemented in other states.
When comparing pure academic results, there are some variables that are important to consider. Whenever one compares schools, it is important to account for the different type of student populations. Comparing academic performance of a high-poverty school against one in a wealthy suburb can represent a skewed comparison.
In April of 2017, the Indiana State Board of Education released a report on the performance of Indiana’s charter school sector. This report, authored by Ron Sandlin, Senior Director of School Performance and Transformation, provides an excellent, data driven, report on Indiana’s charter schools. It also compared public charter schools with nearby public district schools that shared similar student characteristics.
Comparing public charter schools with “like-traditional” public district schools allows a much more balanced approach.
Using data from the State Department of Education, this report illustrated that:
- Public Charter Schools enroll a greater percentage of low-income and minority students than like-traditional public-school corporations;
- Indiana’s Public Charter Schools serve a greater percentage of students who qualify for free / reduced priced meals; and
- Indiana’s Public Charter Schools serve a similar percentage of students with special needs when compared to like-traditional public district schools.
When it comes to academic performance, there is a bit more of a mixed message. The more traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools had strong academic performance compared to the virtual (and now closed) hybrid charter schools.
In 2017, brick-and-mortar charter schools outperformed similar public schools in the A-F accountability system with 36.2% of these charter schools achieving an A or a B rating, compared to 30.4% of similar public district schools achieving an A or a B.
However, the performance of the virtual charter schools is still some of the worst in the state with every virtual charter school scoring an F.
What does the future hold for public charter schools in Indiana?
Making predictions can be tricky. But as someone who is deep into the charter school space, allow me to suggest some trends that I see happening in Indiana:
Look for more charter schools to expand into the townships of Indianapolis.
The saturation of public charter schools in Center Township will make it harder to recruit new students, so operators will have to move further out of the city core. It will be very interesting to see if township superintendents will adopt the co-operative model of IPS’s Superintendent Dr. Ferebee and work with public charter schools or if they will continue to create a hostile environment.
Continuing expansion of the successful models, especially the high schools.
Most public charter schools in Indiana are generally single-site schools, however, we are starting to see a push by some of these operators to replicate their models. Both Purdue and Indianapolis Classical Schools will continue to expand. Though the fate of Broad Ripple High School remains uncertain, it is a pretty good bet, that you will see one or both of those schools operating in that facility within the next two years. Additionally, KIPP, who currently runs a successful elementary and middle school will probably get serious about a high school in the next couple of years.
More rural charter schools.
Both Dugger Union Community School and Mays Community Academy are examples of communities facing school closure who rallied behind and were successful at opening their own charter schools. Both of those schools have done well with Mays recently expanding into a junior high as well. As traditional districts continue to struggle, look for charter school operators to attempt to fill the void.
Indiana has done a great job of creating a policy and legal environment for public charter schools to succeed. Examining the data of who attends a public charter school in Indiana shows that public charter schools in Indiana remain true to the original vision of helping to provide an alternative for all students when the traditional public-school option is sub-par. Because the data is showing that public charter schools are performing very well against similar traditional public schools, I think it’s a safe bet to look for the sector to continue to expand and flourish.