Ball State University’s decision to end its sponsorship of 11 low-scoring charter schools over the past two years contributed to the better overall ISTEP performance this year of 24 schools it still oversees.
Of the schools it still sponsors, about 16 percent rated in the top half of more than 1,800 schools that took the test. That’s better than the schools sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. About 10 percent of Ballard’s 24 schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half. (For more Marion County charter school results go here.)
But it didn’t come easily. Ball State faced criticism in 2012 for sponsoring schools with long records of low performance. Its charter school office overhauled its review process, telling its schools to expect tougher evaluations.
“We’re performing a little better than we were,” said Ball State’s charter school director Bob Marra. “What people have seen is Ball State is serious about authorizing. We’re going to look at the data and take appropriate action steps.”
In 2012-13, seven schools were told their charters would not be renewed. Then four more met the same fate last year. Of those 11, five closed, two converted to private schools and one merged into a sister charter school. Three others remain open after finding new sponsors.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Marra said. “We’re trying to get ourselves in a better position to make those decisions.”
Most charter schools in the state rank at the low end of the spectrum, and Ball State is no different, with about 54 percent of its schools ranked in the bottom quarter of schools for percent passing math and English. But for Ballard’s office, the percent of schools in the bottom quarter statewide was higher than 70 percent.
That’s still a step ahead of the state’s six other charter school sponsors: none of them saw any of their combined nine schools ranked higher than the bottom quarter. Those sponsors include the Indiana State Charter School Board, private colleges and, in one instance, a school district.
Most of those other sponsors have only gotten into the business of overseeing charter schools since a 2011 law created the state charter board and permitted private universities to charter schools as well as public universities.
Before that, only the Indianapolis Mayor’s office, beginning under then-Mayor Bart Peterson, and Ball State had taken advantage of state laws that allowed them to approve and supervise charter schools. Sponsors oversee the schools’ managerial, financial and academic performance and shut down those that fail to fulfill their promises.
All three former Ball State charter schools that stayed open by finding new sponsors this year fell in the bottom quarter of schools in the state for percent passing ISTEP.
Marra said the state’s three major charter school sponsors, Ball State, Mayor Ballard’s office and the Indiana State Charter School Board, have improved communication in an effort to set consistently high expectations for how the schools must perform.
Still, exercising accountability is tough, he said. At some of the now-closed schools emotions ran high about Ball State’s decision.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The law talks about accountability. It’s pretty clear what you need to do. These kids only get one one shot at this. It has to be a quality school.”
Statewide, just three charter schools ranked in the top quarter in the state: Indianapolis’ Tindley Collegiate Academy, The Discovery Charter School near Gary in Chesterton and The Bloomington Project School. Ballard sponsors Tindley. The other two are sponsored by Ball State.
For Ball State, Marra said, tougher oversight meant a focus not just on academics, but also on management of the school and of its finances. For example, another Ball State-sponsored charter school, the International School of Columbus, closed last year for financial reasons despite good academic performance, he said.
“What I’ve learned is its a three-legged stool: fiscal, governance and academics,” he said. “You can’t keep your doors open without all three.”
Here’s how Indiana charter schools that took ISTEP last year ranked for percent passing this year and how their scores compared to last year: