INDIANAPOLIS -- Principal Marcus Robinson strides down the hallway of Indianapolis' Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School,
past a wall that proclaims in huge letters "COLLEGE OR DIE." His maroon polo shirt and khakis match the uniforms of middle-schoolers standing in line for the bathroom, their noses buried in books.
In a booming voice, Robinson praises them for their diligence then continues with his rounds. He picks up pieces of trash, chastises students who are talking as they switch rooms, and singles out a girl for being too loud, telling her, "I need your leadership." Robinson's tough-love, no-excuses approach is getting results: The average sixth-grader enters performing well below grade level. By the time they graduate from high school, Tindley's students will be among the highest performing in the city. All will have taken some college courses and been admitted to four-year colleges.
As a charter school, Tindley operates independently of the city's public school districts and offers what charter advocates say is a better public alternative for disadvantaged students. Some 2,100 Indianapolis students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools, even though not all are doing as well as Tindley.
Tindley's success comes as Mitch Daniels,
the Republican governor of Indiana and a potential 2012 presidential contender, is pushing for far more charters in the state, and as the Indiana House is poised to vote on a new charter expansion law.
Along with newly elected Republican governors in Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin, Daniels is also advocating taxpayer-financed vouchers to send children to private schools. While voucher plans have faced fierce opposition from teachers' unions and many Democratic politicians, it is Daniels' charter school agenda that puts him on rare common ground with President Obama, who has enticed states with federal money to increase the number of charter schools nationwide.
Since 2009, when Obama first introduced the competitive grant program known as Race to the Top,
14 states have eased their restrictions on the number of charters permitted. "Charter schools aren't a magic bullet, but I want to give states and school districts the chance to try new things," Obama said last July. "If a charter school works, then let's apply those lessons elsewhere."
Policymakers and reformers on both sides of the aisle have long touted charter schools as a way to improve all schools, and charters are indeed booming. There are about 4,900 charter schools in the United States, and on average 400 new charters open every year, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education
at the University of Washington Bothell.
At the same time, anecdotal evidence and research from around the country suggest that charters, which still enroll only about 3 percent of all U.S. students, don't necessarily spur other public schools to improve. Indianapolis, which is known for having some of the worst public school districts in the country, provides a perfect example of how complex the notion can be.
"The thought was that 'a higher tide raises all boats,' " said David Harris, who served as former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson's right-hand man when the city's charter movement began nine years ago. "It's been a disappointment both in Indianapolis and around the country," Harris said.
As Daniels advocates charter expansion in Indiana and Obama promotes charters-as-laboratories across the country, Indianapolis shows there's good reason to be wary of politicians' claims that charters can improve the quality of education for students in all public schools. Even charter operators have moved away from promoting charters as the saviors of public education.
History of charters
The notion that charters will have influence beyond their walls -- whether through cooperation or competition -- has been around for decades and has received support from many political camps. Even Albert Shanker, the liberal former president of the American Federation of Teachers, thought charter schools would encourage innovative ways of educating when the concept was introduced in the late 1980s.
By the 1990s, charters became the preferred school-choice option for conservative reformers because vouchers were seen as too divisive. Advocates believed that by introducing competition, public schools afraid of losing students and money would be spurred to step up their own performance. As this line of thinking took hold, Shanker morphed into an outspoken critic of charter schools.
Indianapolis launched its own charter experiment after the state passed a law in 2001 that gave Indianapolis' mayor the power to authorize charter schools within city limits. It remains the only law of its kind nationwide, and it was launched partly in the hope that spurring competition would improve all schools.
At the time, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), the largest of 11 school districts in the city, had a graduation rate of about 30 percent, along with test scores that fell well below the state average. The district has since opened a number of magnet schools in response to the mayor's charter schools, and it has made some strides in recent years. But the district's graduation rate still hovers around 50 percent, and test scores, although higher, are still far below state average. Only 28 out of 77 IPS schools met federal annual yearly progress (AYP) requirements last year, and there's no clear way to attribute any of IPS' successes or failures to charter schools.
There are some indications, though, of where charters fall short. For instance, only 6 out of 15 met AYP in 2008-2009 – roughly the same percentage as in IPS. The mayor's charter team, however, found that 61 percent of charter school students were proficient in English last year and 64 percent were in math, compared to 54 percent and 58 percent, respectively, at the schools these students would have attended if the charters didn't exist.
Eugene White, the superintendent of IPS, isn't against charter schools but says he can't compete anymore because he is "bleeding students" to them. As a result, he's lobbied the state for a charter cap, and spoke out against Daniels' plan last week.
In Indianapolis, students have flocked to charters. Some 8,400 students now attend charter schools authorized by the mayor, while an additional 1,650 students attend charters authorized by Ball State University in Indianapolis. In all, close to 6 percent of the city's students go to charters.
Last year, about 70 percent of charter school students lived within the IPS attendance zone. But Karega Rausch, director of the Office of Education Innovation in Indianapolis,
said 65.3 percent of students who have left IPS in the last four years actually switched to a school in one of the 10 other districts within the city. IPS has lost an average of 1,200 students annually over the past three years, although that number is declining.
Losing students to charters is not the only thing that has held IPS back from making sweeping changes, though. As Rausch put it: "Reforming traditional districts is like turning the Titanic around."
Union contracts provide a case in point. Poorly performing teachers aren't easy to get rid of in most public schools. This isn't true at charters, though. For instance, when the Tindley Academy hit a rough spot early on, Robinson, the principal, held a meeting with teachers about how to improve student performance. A number of teachers favored creating a "Tindley-lite" track for those not capable of reaching the school's high standards. Robinson says he fired everyone who advocated that approach.
Tindley teachers, like many who work in charter schools, also work long hours: from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the school year, as well as additional hours over the summer. It's a different story in traditional public schools. Teachers' contracts in Indiana spell out how many hours teachers work and how they can be terminated. "We have a whole process we have to go through," White said.
'Missed the boat'
Charter school principal Carey Dahncke has taken full advantage of the new freedom he now has. Since leaving his position as principal of an IPS elementary school in 2006 to take over the K-9 Christel House Academy, Dahncke has been able to partner with health organizations on wellness initiatives, local colleges to teach music lessons and an outdoor group to take students on yearly camping trips.
"Here we're a lot more innovative because we can be," he said, noting how decisions that can take years to make in the public school world can be made almost instantly at Christel House.
But that doesn't mean he feels the success of his school -- one of the highest-performing in Indianapolis -- can be copied in a "cookie-cutter" way. And he doesn't specifically work with IPS schools to share his model or insights with them.
In Indianapolis, some of the mayor's charter schools have a unique spin to them. For instance, one charter is specifically for students who have dropped out and another caters to students with substance-abuse problems. Still, White, the IPS superintendent, isn't impressed with the innovation of charter schools in the city, and he doesn't think there'd be much to learn if they were to collaborate. With few exceptions, he said, these charters mimic programs his district already has. "Charters have missed the boat somewhat," he said.
His critique is one heard around the country as charters began to grow in earnest. "It became very clear that charters on the whole are not as innovative as a lot of people would like them to be," said Jeffrey Henig
, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Other than lengthening the school day and year -- which can be politically difficult to do in regular school districts -- many charters still resemble traditional public schools.
Harris, who now heads the nonprofit Mind Trust
in Indianapolis, believes that replicating success in charters won't get easier, regardless of how creative they are. Both in Indianapolis and nationally, charters – just like regular public schools – can't be successful without attracting and maintaining a steady stream of good leaders and teachers.
"What makes charter schools great aren't specific best practices as much as empowering really talented people to do really innovative things," said Harris. "This 'best practices' view of the world – it's limited by who is doing the replication of the best practices."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.