Nowhere does the narrative of charter schools as innovative and effective ring as false as with northeast Indiana's first charter school, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy. A 12-year failed experiment in choice, students and taxpayers have paid dearly for a school that appears to continue only at the mercy of some vulnerable parents and the whim of a few adults.
Just 1 in 3 of the charter school's students passed the state's math and English tests this year, a decline of nearly 7 percent in the 2013 passing rate. Where are the education reform supporters in demanding accountability for the charter school's performance? How does the school remain in operation at taxpayer expense?
When Indiana's charter law was passed in 2001, its proponents promised that public charter schools, in exchange for flexibility not afforded to traditional schools, would be held accountable if they failed to perform well. When it became apparent that many did not, the General Assembly simply gave the schools another way to dodge accountability and to continue to collect state funds.
While the original law gave chartering authority only to state universities and the Indianapolis mayor, current law allows private universities and an appointed state charter board to license schools. The result was a clever charter marketplace.
Citing poor academic performance, Ball State University's Office of Charter Schools announced in early 2013 that it would not renew the Johnson Academy's charter. The appointed school board – a majority of whose members have served since the school opened in 2002 – simply found a new authorizer in Trine University.
To expect improvement was a stretch. Trine and its newly created charter-authorizing arm, Education One LLC, has no experience overseeing schools serving mostly minority students from poverty.
More important, nothing changed in the administration of the school. Leona Group, a Michigan-based charter-school operator, continues to hold the management contract for the school, situated at the site of the former Village Elementary School in southeast Fort Wayne.
Leona has a less-than-impressive record managing schools in five states. Steve Bollier, a Leona employee and the charter's superintendent, has been an administrator there since the first principal resigned less than two weeks into the first school year. Steven Terry, a member of the East Allen County Schools board, is the current school leader.
To its credit, Trine pledges to hold the school accountable. Lindsay Omlor, in just her second day on the job as the university's charter school director, said she was aware of the dismal ISTEP+ scores.
“We are extremely disappointed in the most recent performance of Timothy L. Johnson Academy and their inability to adopt and implement our corrective action plans,” she said in an email statement. “Education One has notified TLJA that if immediate steps are not taken, including the adoption of all facets of our corrective action plan, their charter will be revoked at the end of the 2015 school year.”
But students already have waited more than a decade for corrective action. The Johnson Academy board and Leona Group ran through years of excuses and second chances with Ball State; they are likely to attempt the same with Trine.
Voters can't throw out the Johnson Academy school board. The unelected board members don't even have to acknowledge calls for new management. What voters can do is demand that legislators account for the school-choice charade they created and answer to the educational neglect they've supported since 2001.