A first grader does his work while sitting on a bilingual rug at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14, 2014. The charter school, with 70 percent English-language learners, uses a blended language learning approach. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/The Star)
Young and idealistic, Tim Ehrgott was zealous for education reform in the early years. Now he wants some charter schools to be shut down.
Ehrgott helped lay the groundwork for charter schools and school choice for low-income families in Indianapolis. Then he launched a charter in Irvington and ran it for several years.
But now he thinks that charter schools with low grades (D or F) should be closed. He also thinks education reformers need to tone down their rhetoric and promises.
Using a stock market analogy, he sees charter schools in an artificial bubble. Perceived value is higher than actual performance. When the bubble pops, the entire movement could be in jeopardy.
Ehrgott comes to these sobering conclusions as a friend of education reform.
He worked with the late businessman Pat Rooney in the 1980s, as Rooney and other business leaders sought school vouchers for low-income families. The General Assembly said no, and Rooney started CHOICE Charitable Trust, offering more than 2,000 private school scholarships a year. CHOICE revealed a pent-up demand for alternatives to public schools.
Then, after the state finally adopted a charter school law, Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson launched the charter movement in Indianapolis. Republicans in the Statehouse later added a voucher program, which has became one of the largest in the country.
Ehrgott says charters have promoted competition in public schools, as well as helped neighborhoods. “The Tindley school has changed the Meadows neighborhood for the better dramatically,” he said.
He also credits charters with providing alternatives for students who struggled in traditional public schools.
Yet, he doesn’t see the overall success that was promised. “Charters in the D-F range should be closed immediately. Those in the C range should not be automatically renewed,” he said. “Produce superior results or be closed.”
More than half the charters, he added, are getting D or F. “Even when you standardize the results for at risk factors, charters are failing at twice the rate of traditional public schools.”
He fears that a good reform could be defeated by lax administration.
“We had a save-the-world mentality in the early years,” he said. “Reality set in. Now, 13 years later, we need a conversation, an honest assessment about the good and bad. The only result that counts is whether students are benefiting from reform.”
Pulliam is associate editor of The Star. E-mail him at Russell.Pulliam@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter at RBPulliam@twitter.com.