Questions raise concern about school takeover law

File Photo.
File Photo.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana law allowing the state to take over consistently failing schools could be in for some changes as state officials and private school operators seek to resolve confusion over who has the ultimate authority over the facilities and their students.

The state took over five chronically failing schools in 2012 and turned them over to private operators. The move was hailed as an aggressive effort by former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett to hold schools accountable and improve performance and those that have long struggled.

But two years later, all five schools are still failing, enrollment has dropped and funding issues have prompted at least one operator to threaten to pull out. And with four more failing schools facing potential state takeovers, education leaders say it’s critical that everyone is on the same page.

“We still need to wait and see if we can actually turn these schools around,” state Rep. Robert Behning, the Indiana House’s education committee chairman, told The Indianapolis Star. “There’s got to be a way out there, but so far we have not been very successful.”

Some of the issues stem from confusion over who has the authority to make decisions at the schools. Others are tied to money. The four Indianapolis takeover schools lost between 35 percent and 60 percent of their students between the start of classes in 2011 and when the takeover operators took over in 2012. Since schools are mostly funded based on enrollment, that gutted the budgets the private operators had to work with.

Tindley Accelerated Schools, the nonprofit that runs Arlington High School, recently threatened to pull out unless it could get $2.4 million in additional aid.

The company has struggled to pay utilities and other costs associated with the school and is projecting a $1 million budget shortfall for the 2014-15 school year.

A deal reached with Indianapolis Public Schools calls for the district to give Arlington up to $250,000, the amount it would spend if the building were empty. But that’s only a short-term fix.

“The long-term question is what is the path forward,” said Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth.

Tindley CEO Marcus Robinson said the nonprofit probably won’t be part of Arlington’s future after this school year.

“If the business model can’t be fixed, it is a good time to talk about who to pass the baton to,” he said.

Indiana schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz isn’t a fan of takeovers. State law requires the state to intervene when a school reaches six consecutive years of F grades under Indiana’s A to F grading system. The option for the state to remove a school from district control was added to state law in 1999 but not used until 2012 under Bennett.

Ritz believes tailored assistance, rather than sanctions and outsourcing, is more effective at helping struggling schools improve.

“Do I believe you have to do a takeover? No,” she said. “I believe if you have the strong supports you don’t need it.”

Behning, the House’s education committee chairman, said he favors changing the takeover law. That appeals to Tony Walker, a Gary lawyer and member of the state education board who opposed takeovers when he first joined the panel.

Walker has helped mediate disputes involving Roosevelt High School, one of the takeover schools,, and he now believes the private management of the school has been good for students.

But he said Indiana needs to set clear guidance on who has authority to enforce the rules and provide a takeover budget.

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

 

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