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A school bus in front of the former YWCA campus serves as advertisement for Imagine Schools, which are charter schools.

Competing for students

When Indiana entered into its school choice experiment more than a decade ago, supporters hailed charter schools as innovative laboratories capable of spurring competition and improvement.

The state’s charter schools have been short on innovation and only a handful have outperformed neighboring schools, but the competition piece of the equation certainly has come to pass. So it’s neither surprising nor disappointing to see traditional public schools pushing back against aggressive recruiting tactics by the charter schools. If choice supporters want schools to compete, they should be prepared to accept a vigorous contest.

Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson set out the challenge this week in a presentation to the board, proposing a door-to-door campaign to counter efforts by charter school recruiters. Two new schools have been approved to open this fall: Fort Wayne Urban League’s Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy and Smith Academy for Excellence.

The Indiana Charter School Board approved the Urban League’s application for a school located in southeast Fort Wayne, in East Allen County Schools’ Paul Harding High School attendance area. But the location was changed after the charter was granted, so that the school will be located in the FWCS attendance area, with most of the prospective students transferring from FWCS. Thurgood Marshall organizers claim to have 175 students enrolled for fall.

In her presentation Monday, Robinson said that the school district’s data and progress have been “distorted” as part of the marketing effort by the new charter schools. She also noted that local private and parochial schools have launched aggressive campaigns to attract students to the new voucher program.

The FWCS superintendent responded with achievement results, including figures from a widely used early literacy assessment that showed 90 percent of the district’s kindergarteners at grade level by the end of the school year, compared to 71 percent of kindergarten students nationwide.

“I think it’s great to let our numbers do the talking,” FWCS board President Mark GiaQuinta said of Robinson’s efforts. “The numbers she showed us were pretty remarkable.”

FWCS officials hoped that positive results from this year’s ISTEP+ tests would also bolster retention efforts, but the Indiana Department of Education has delayed statewide release of scores until mid-July.

GiaQuinta said he wants to see an aggressive response to the competition traditional public schools now face, including television advertising and multiple mailings by the two Imagine Inc.-operated charter schools. At the next board meeting, he plans to introduce a resolution addressed to the state charter board calling attention to the Thurgood Marshall Academy’s revised school plan.

“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” GiaQuinta said. “There’s not one (school) that’s going to kill us, but they just keep opening. And we’re having to fight this fight at the same time we’re trying to improve outcomes for our own kids.”

Aside from a recruiting battle, traditional public schools were dealt a blow with a new law that allows charter schools to claim any unused public school building. At the Indiana Public Charter School Association’s behest, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy is challenging FWCS’ sale of the former Pleasant Center Elementary School to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority.

Intentionally or not, lawmakers have set the battlefield for public education. As the contest heats up, they should ask whether charter schools and vouchers are truly delivering the innovation and improvement promised – or simply running up costly legal and marketing bills.