Something went wrong with charter schools

It is past time for an open discussion in Indiana about charter-school performance.

A review of charter results under the state’s A-F accountability system by the Indiana Policy Review Foundation is even more shocking: Charters produce less than half the percentage of A’s of the traditional public schools and nine times the percentage of F’s. And in a state that rates three-quarters of its public schools as A’s and B’s, only 38 percent of charters grade out as A or B.

But this may be unfair. Charter schools are overwhelmingly located in urban areas with a higher percentage of at-risk students while the public schools extend into suburban areas with fewer at-risk students. (While charters are public schools, the term is used here to denote traditional public schools.)

What if the data were adjusted for socioeconomic factors so as to compare apples to apples? Do charters then live up to their original promise to clearly outperform similar public schools?

The answer is an alarming and unambiguous “No.” Charters produce half the A’s and twice the F’s of the public school system in those most-at-risk categories representing the very students they were formed to help.

When Indiana began its experiment with charter schools in 2002, the advocates of reform, including myself as a founder of one of the original charters, had presented Indiana taxpayers with both a premise and a promise.

The premise was that by being freed from unnecessary regulations, charter schools, as “independent” public schools, could operate more efficiently than the “bloated” public schools and produce superior results with fewer resources, especially in areas with at-risk students.

The promise was that if charter schools failed to achieve results superior to what was already in the marketplace — as demonstrated by both state metrics and those agreed to with their authorizers — they would face closure.

Any modification of the A-F system or increase in charter funding would have to be so transformative that it would double the percentage of charters earning A’s and halve the percentage graded as F’s. And that would only bring charter-school performance up to the level of the public schools, not above them as understood in the original premise of charters.

The question, then, asks itself: Why continue to fund charter schools as alternatives? After all, Indiana already has a cohort of schools that are performing as well and at a similar cost — they’re called public schools.

There are steps, both short- and long-term, that could improve this picture. They start with recognizing charters that are succeeding and closing of ones that are not. And with three-quarters of Indiana schools graded an A or a B, it isn’t acceptable to sustain a C school. Mediocrity is not success.

Other steps might include: providing alternative funding for charter facilities; delivering student transportation through the existing public-school systems; and creating funding sources for groups exploring starting a charter school.

There are well-run charter schools in Indiana that are making a difference in their students’ lives. Overall, however, if a medical study or business plan produced these results — with many more adverse outcomes than positive ones — the project would be shut down.

It is time for Indiana citizens to ask their legislators why the same isn’t true for underperforming charter schools.

Timothy P. Ehrgott, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has spent two decades engaged in school-reform efforts, first as the founding executive director of the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, the nation’s first privately funded voucher program. He founded a charter school in Indianapolis and served as its president for eight years. Send comments to