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Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as Indiana Legislature Passes Charter School Law

Indiana Legislature Passes Charter School Law

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Call it a case of the seven-year itch. Indiana state Sen. Teresa S. Lubbers has worked to persuade fellow lawmakers to establish a charter school program—to no avail—every year since 1994. Last week, though, she proved that persistence pays off.

The Senate voted 34-12 on April 19 to pass a bill authorizing the creation of charter schools in the Hoosier State. If the measure is signed into law as expected by Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, a Democrat, Indiana will become the 38th state to allow charter schools.

Under the bill, which passed the House of Representatives on April 12, school districts, state colleges and universities, and the mayor of Indianapolis would have the authority to sponsor charter schools. The mayor of only one other city, Milwaukee, has similar authority.

"We finally broke the logjam of partisan politics and were able to look at the charter school not in Republican or Democratic terms," said Ms. Lubbers, a Republican who shepherded the legislation through the Senate. "I think everyone at the table came to the conclusion that a charter school law would give us an opportunity to improve student learning in Indiana."

As a part of the compromise forged to garner bipartisan support for authorizing charter schools, the bill would also restore the ability of teachers in the Indianapolis district to bargain collectively over certain issues, including questions tied to hours and other working conditions. State lawmakers placed restrictions on collective bargaining for the city's teachers in 1995, as a part of a special law aimed at increasing academic accountability and performance in the 41,000-student district.

Some observers said that the reinstatement of certain bargaining rights for Indianapolis teachers was crucial to the passage of the charter school measure.

"I don't think it would have been possible to have achieved a legislative consensus without that," said Daniel L. Clark, the deputy executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "There was a basic inequity. Teachers throughout the rest of the state had rights that teachers in Indianapolis didn't have."

Charter school advocates, meanwhile, said they refused to yield to pressure from some education organizations to make school districts the only entities able to sponsor charter schools.

Bill Seen as 'Strong'

Jeanne Allen, the executive director of the Center for Education Reform—a Washington-based organization that supports school choice—said the advocates' tenacity paid off in the form of a much stronger charter bill. Around the nation, the existence of a charter-sponsoring authority other than local school boards is shaping up as "the single most important factor" in determining the strength of a state's charter law, Ms. Allen said.

"The planets were aligned right," Ms. Allen said of the culmination of the efforts made by charter advocates in Indiana. "It sounds like there were enough smart trade-offs able to be made, and it looks like this is going to be a very strong law for charter operators."

The bill would not allow for-profit education management companies to run charter schools, which are publicly funded but administratively independent. Yet it would not set a limit on the number of charter schools that could open in the state.

Under the measure, teachers in newly established charter schools would be allowed to unionize or negotiate independently, while those in regular public schools that opted to convert to charter status would work under existing labor contracts.

Charter schools sponsored by school districts would receive full per-pupil funding through those districts, while those sponsored by other entities would receive an equivalent level of per-pupil funding from the state. Capital projects, transportation, and debt-service costs would not be covered.

Frank A. Bush, the executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said the bill constitutes a blow to traditional public schools. If signed into law, he said, the charter measure will sap funding from regular schools if students leave them to attend charter schools sponsored by entities other than local school boards.

"This is just another way to break up public school programs," Mr. Bush said. "Vouchers aren't going to be far behind."

Proceeding With Caution

But Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson countered that establishing chartering entities separate from local school boards would add healthy new perspectives to efforts to improve educational opportunities for Indiana students.

Bart Peterson

"Some people might come to the mayor who might not come to the local school board to talk about chartering a school," said Mr. Peterson, a Democrat elected in 1999. Under the charter bill, Mr. Peterson could sponsor as many as five charter schools a year throughout Marion County, which includes the Indianapolis system and 10 other school districts. That number is cumulative, meaning that if Mr. Peterson sponsors only one school in one year, he can sponsor nine schools the next.

Mayor Peterson said he had no plans to rush into using his new authority, assuming the bill becomes law, but would instead assemble an advisory board and proceed with caution.

"Mayors are very accountable to the public," Mr. Peterson said. "If they're unhappy with the way we handle the authority to charter schools, they have a very clear-cut opportunity to register their unhappiness at the next election."

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Pages 20,23

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