The Center for Media and Democracy released the results of a special investigation of charter schools across the country, saying the charter school experiment in Indiana is "troubling."

The report said charters in Indiana test no better, and often, worse, than traditional public schools. It said Gov. Mike Pence recently announced his intention to expand the number of charter schools over the next three years.

There are 11 charter schools operating in Northwest Indiana, most in Gary. The top-performing charter school is Discovery Charter School in Porter County, rated A by the Indiana Department of Education.   

All but one of the local charters are authorized by the Office of Charter Schools at Ball State University in Muncie. The Charter School of the Dunes is authorized by Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond.

Three years ago, after putting in more rigorous standards, Ball State declined to renew charters for three schools in Northwest Indiana due to poor academic performance. Two of them closed and the third, Charter School of the Dunes, withdrew its application for renewal and instead applied to Calumet College.

Just this year under the more rigorous academic and financial requirements, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary received a one-year renewal rather than a five-year renewal.

The report, titled Charter School Black Hole: CMD Special Investigation Reveals Huge Info Gap on Charter Spending, exposed a serious lack of accountability in tax dollars directed toward charter schools across the nation.

That report, released this month, follows the U.S. Department of Education’s September decision to spend $249 million for 2015-16 in additional grants to states for charter schools.

The national report highlights states that received federal tax dollars to open and expand charter schools. Many of these schools have since closed with no record of how assets purchased with tax dollars were disposed of after these schools closed. Additionally, dozens of schools received grants without ever opening to students.

The report analyzed funding for schools in Arizona, Ohio, California, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Texas, Utah, Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. Several states covered in the report recently received tens of millions in additional federal charter school grant commitments.

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Bob Marra, executive director of Ball State's Office of Charter Schools, said he believes the agency has put more rigor into the application process and is doing a better job of reviewing applications on the front end.

"We developed a new position called new-school development coordinator," he said.

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"We believe that will enable us to do a better job of looking at schools when they apply to open so that five years later, we're not issuing a nonrenewal. We're also giving schools a longer time to use the (start-up) grant. It used to be they had six months from approval to opening. Now, they can have as much as 18 months to open."

Marra also pointed out the Center for Media and Democracy didn't specifically cite any of its schools in the report.

Kevin Teasley, president/CEO of Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, which operates 21st Century Charter School in Gary, said he believes there is oversight and accountability for charter schools.

"When we submitted our application for charter school start-up grant, it was very thorough. We had to provide detailed accountability for money and how it was being spent,"  he said.

The report also said:

• At least $2.2 million of federal taxpayer money was awarded under the Charter Schools Program to schools that closed within a few years or never opened to students.

• Emails obtained by CMD through an open records request to Gov. Pence’s office found troubling examples of how the private charter sector, notably for-profit chain Charter Schools USA, exerts its influence on policymaking.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.