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Takeover Of Four Indiana Schools Faces Criticism, Lawsuit

Indiana School Takeover

First Posted: 08/29/11 02:32 PM ET Updated: 10/29/11 06:12 AM ET

Today, Indiana’s Board of Education is expected to rubber-stamp a contentious plan for the state to take over three high schools and one middle school in Indianapolis, paving the way for the Hoosier state’s first experience running local classrooms.

If the plan is approved, private managers would be put in charge of Manual, Arlington and Howe high schools as well as Emma Donnan Middle School. Two other high schools would receive help from consulting firms. Under Indiana law, the state can take over schools after their sixth year of academic probation.

UPDATE: 4:37 p.m. -- The Indiana Board of Education voted on Monday to approve the intervention plan. Tony Bennett, the state superintendent of public instruction, praised the decision. "Implementing these interventions is now the department's top priority," he said in a statement.

If the plan is approved, private managers would be put in charge of Manual, Arlington and Howe high schools as well as Emma Donnan Middle School. Two other high schools would receive help from consulting firms. Under Indiana law, the state can take over schools after their sixth year of academic probation.

The plan has raised questions about the wisdom of state intervention in local schools and has brought the threat of a lawsuit. Locals worry that outside management without an Indianapolis-based governance body will make school business less transparent.

"We have very few answers," said Indianapolis school board member Annie Roof. "All we know is that these are not going to be Indianapolis schools anymore."

The formula the state used to determine which schools should be taken over is flawed, according to Indianapolis Superintendent Eugene White. White said four of the six schools have actually seen improvement over the last six years. According to the local TV station 6News, he said the state used data from just one grade in each high school. (White did not return requests for comment from HuffPost.)

White also said the takeover plan was "more about politics than the children."

Indiana was the scene of major education reform this year, following a nationwide trend of tying teacher reviews to student scores on standardized tests. Indiana passed laws that created an expansive voucher system, made teacher tenure contingent on effectiveness, limited collective bargaining, ended the process of firing teachers in order of seniority and required teacher evaluations to be "significantly informed" by student performance on standardized exams.

The state rejected White’s appeals of its method for calculating which schools should be taken over, leading White to email school board members to call for “a third party’s opinion on this matter." He argued that the city school system "cannot receive a fair decision" from the state Department of Education.

On Thursday evening, the Indianapolis school board voted 4-3 to sue the state if the takeover is approved, challenging its calculations for the four schools.

Tony Bennett, the state superintendent of public instruction, rejects White’s arguments that the law allowing the takeover is too lenient. "We are talking about seven of the worst schools in the state of Indiana," Bennett told The Huffington Post. "These schools have not served children, and it is imperative that the state step in."

Bennett added, "The answer to meeting accountability metrics is to educate your way above the accountability metrics -- not to litigate your way out of it."

Roof, the school board member, voted against a lawsuit, saying that while she opposed the state takeover, litigation would be costly and time-consuming. "There’s no answer as to how much this will cost the district," she said. "At this point, what good is fighting it?"

On the other hand, she added, "Very little has been explained about the benefits" of state-run schools. "Right now, parents know they can come to us with concerns," Roof said. "They’re not going to have that anymore."

Bennett said the public hearing process should assuage such concerns. Private management organizations will take over the schools for a one-year observational period before making changes. "Part of our first-year expectations for operators is the development of community engagement and involvement and outreach," he said. "We are paying attention to the work of the operators, that they build involvement. Otherwise we can get rid of them."

After that first year, the private managers can take a light hand or shake up the schools’ staffs entirely. "I’d love to see them rehire the existing staffs," Roof said.

Bennett chose Charter Schools USA, EdPower and EdisonLearning run the schools. His choice of Edison raised concern, since the schools it runs in Dayton, Ohio, have faced criticism for dropping enrollment and mixed results.

Bennett said he had addressed these questions when interviewing potential managers. "We set up a strong contractual relationship with Edison, and I don’t know what that relationship is like in Dayton," he said. "But if Edison doesn’t produce, students and parents might make alternative choices."

But Bennett's assurances aren't soothing many nerves. "I don’t want these schools to be taken over," said Roof. "It’s devastating."

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