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Carpe Diem: Seize the tax dollars

Indiana supporters of corporate education reform are determined to force a charter school on Fort Wayne– whether the community wants one or not.

With Ball State University prepared to shut down three corporate-controlled charter schools here, Arizona-based Carpe Diem has apparently been summoned to set up shop in Fort Wayne. The Indiana Charter School Board will hold a "hearing" in just 11 days. I use the term "hearing" hesitantly – the board's last hearing in Fort Wayne, on an application for the Fort Wayne Urban League's Thurgood Marshall Academy, resembled no official state hearing I've witnessed in 32 years in Indiana journalism.

The Urban League's hearing, at least, revealed some local participation, in the form of Urban League board members. The application for Carpe Diem, which operates a charter in Indianapolis, indicates interest only from a prospective landlord – Ambassador Enterprises.

Fort Wayne residents will recall that Ambassador is a consulting, investment and private equity firm associated with the Doden family. Eric Doden was formerly director of investments for the company, which was hired by Taylor University to find a use for its vacant Fort Wayne campus but later ended up buying the Rudisill Avenue campus itself. The site is identified as the likely home for the Fort Wayne Carpe Diem school, with a proposed lease agreement mapped out in the 77-page application.

Eric Doden unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for mayor of Fort Wayne in 2011; he was appointed CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. by Gov. Mike Pence last month. He will earn $149,000 a year.

Doden's name is not linked to the Carpe Diem application, but the Indiana board for the charter school company includes another Republican state official: Jason Bearce, associate commissioner of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. Bearce reports to Teresa Lubbers, who was appointed commissioner for higher education by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Another familiar name among the Carpe Diem board members is school-voucher warrior Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, driving force behind Daniels' successful school voucher law.

Carpe Diem's ties to Indiana are through former state Superintendent Tony Bennett. He traveled to Arizona to visit the charter schools and apparently invited them to come to Indiana. Rather than seek a charter through Ball State or the Indianapolis Mayor's Office, Carpe Diem won its charter from the newly established Indiana Charter School Board, created as an easier path for charter expansion.

Carpe Diem has had some issues in Arizona. Indiana blogger Peg with Pen notes the company is a favorite of the corporate-controlled American Legislative Exchange Council for its "love of technology and lack of teachers." Some reports have indicated the school, which relies heavily on online instruction, has classrooms with a student/teacher ratio of as high as 50-1.

Another name on the Fort Wayne Carpe Diem application is Robert Sommers, identified as the company's CEO. But Sommers' name surfaced Tuesday in this Education Week article, about the intriguing web of foundation and corporate interests linking Oklahoma, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education and Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi. Sommers apparently has been hired by Barresi as director of the state's new CareerTech board.

Barresi's a member of Chiefs for Change, which is headed by – wait for it, wait for it – Tony Bennett. A watchdog group, In the Public Interest, recently released public records detailing communications among education officials in six states, Bush's foundation and corporate backers. The records, obtained through freedom of information requests, did not include Indiana, but numerous email records among the documents were addressed to Bennett and other top Indiana DOE officials.

It's a fascinating tangle of past and present GOP officials, corporate CEOs, education reform foundations and more. Now, it appears to be seeking a toehold in a south Fort Wayne neighborhood. Imagine that, if you'll pardon the pun.

For some additional intrigue, consider a major legislative push by Indiana Gov. Pence is in vocational education, with bills authored by former Bennett aide Todd Huston and House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning designed to strip authority from Democratic Superintendent Glenda Ritz and hand it to the commission for higher education (Teresa Lubbers, Jason Bearce) and Department of Workforce Development.

Stay tuned for more intrigue at the Carpe Diem public "hearing" on Feb. 26.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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