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Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Early results are mixed, misunderstanding common on Indiana charter schools

Center for Evaluation and Education Policy releases study conducted for Indiana General Assembly

Dec. 2, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A comprehensive evaluation of data has found results that support both sides of the debate regarding charter schools in Indiana, but most of all finds that stakeholders have many misunderstandings about the schools. The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at the Indiana University School of Education conducted the "Study of the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Charter Schools in Indiana" following a request from the Indiana General Assembly.

The study considered 14 questions suggested by the four caucuses of the General Assembly. Data came from the Indiana Department of Education, the two major sponsors, and interviews with 30 stakeholders, such as superintendents, leaders of Indiana education policy organizations and individual charter school leaders.

Jonathan Plucker

Jonathan Plucker

Print-Quality Photo

The biggest take-away point, according to CEEP Director Jonathan Plucker, is that the pro-con debate on charter schools may be ill-informed.

"People have staked out black-and-white positions, yet the reality exists in shades of gray," Plucker said. "Some of the things I thought I knew about charter schools turned out to be things I needed to reconsider, and we hope this evaluation has that effect on others."

"I think if you look at all of the results in general, many of them fall right down the middle," said Terri Akey, senior research associate at CEEP.

Indiana's first charter schools opened their doors in the 2002-03 school year. As of this fall, 49 charter schools were in operation statewide, concentrated in the urban areas of Indianapolis, Gary and Fort Wayne, and also scattered in other areas across the state, including Evansville and Lafayette. Twenty-nine of the schools are sponsored by Ball State University, 17 by the Indianapolis mayor's office, two by the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. and one by the Lafayette School Corp. Indiana's charter schools operate under a charter, or contract, that allows some freedom from state regulation to enable a different curriculum to fit divergent learning and teaching styles.

Since enabling legislation passed the legislature in 2001, Plucker says the law has undergone many changes, which may explain the finding that so many stakeholders don't properly understand charter school rules and regulations.

"When we interviewed stakeholders around the state -- all very experienced, highly knowledgeable people -- almost everyone misunderstood some aspect of the current laws or how charters are funded and operate," he said.

Among the findings in the study are that charter schools serve a similar or higher percentage of low-income students as do traditional public schools, although they don't serve special needs students in proportion to other public schools. It also found that charter school students aren't necessarily more "mobile" than other public school students, contrary to a perception among some in the school community that charter school students don't stay with the new school very long.

The study also found "no practical difference between student performance in charter schools and traditional public schools."

"I'm sure that set of findings will be widely talked about, but I caution people about reading too much into them," Plucker said. He added that other research indicates rapid achievement increases generally 6-8 years after comprehensive school reforms.

"That said, we hear often from critics who say that charter student achievement is very poor compared to traditional public schools," Plucker said. "We don't see any evidence for that conclusion. At the same time, we often hear from advocates that charter student achievement is much better than that for traditional public school students. We don't see any evidence for that conclusion, either. The truth, as is often the case, is probably in the middle."

Other key findings include:

  • There is considerable lack of coordination and support among charter schools across the state, particularly in supporting special education and advocacy.
  • Considering funding data, a case can be made that charter schools are either over-funded or under-funded, depending on perspective. While the schools do have access to the state's Public Charter School Program funding and have higher per-pupil revenue from the General Fund, the schools don't have funding from the state for debt service, transportation, or capital projects.
  • While there is some innovation in charter schools, traditional public schools seem to be creating new programs in response to charter schools in the district. "You are seeing districts begin to make some changes and to be more innovative," said Akey. "Whether that's a direct function of charter school innovation or just charter schools being there, that's not clear."
  • Parents report they are highly satisfied with the charter schools their children attend.
  • Demand for charter schools is high, particularly for urban areas at the elementary level. Some specific grade levels in Indianapolis have waitlists of more than 1,000.

Lawmakers are already considering some follow-ups to this study. CEEP is preparing memos with suggestions for how to proceed.

"The next steps are up to the General Assembly," Plucker said. "There is a lot of information for everyone to digest, so it will probably be a couple months before next steps will be discussed."

The study's executive summary is available at and the full report at

About The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy

CEEP, Indiana's leading non-partisan education policy research center, promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and education policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services, and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state and national education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education. To learn more about CEEP, go to