As March madness rages in Indianapolis -- at the Statehouse -- parents cozy up to something they know for certain: girls playing basketball in a public school.
Woosh. Two points for another team of fifth- and sixth-graders.
Sit next to a parent for a minute, here in Mishawaka's Beiger Elementary School, and ask about one of the many education reform bills that have divided Democratic and Republican legislators, driving Democrats to hide out in Illinois.
Noah Jeffcoat admits he's foggy on exactly what a charter school is. In fact, so are a lot of the other parents here. (Can you define it?) But ask this Mishawaka father whether he'd even think about checking out a charter school for one of his kids.
Nope, says Jeffcoat, an affirmed supporter of public schools.
"I don't see why you'd take what little money they (public schools) have and thin it out even more," he says.
That is a key argument against House Bill 1002, which would allow charter schools to multiply across Indiana beyond the 62 that now exist.
Another dad at the game, Kevin Campbell, says of the money argument, "I get that." But he also feels that charter schools would add a healthy dose of competition, pushing public schools to think about how to do things better.
"At least we'd have options," he said.
But would they be better options? What would be the difference?
Charter schools are seen as small laboratories for better learning. The Indiana Department of Education website describes them as "innovative and creative educational choices."
They are public schools because the state channels money to them for each student, just as it does for regular public schools.
Charter schools often are started by a nonprofit group, but public districts can start them, too.
They have their own boards. So, even if a school district did open a charter school, it would govern itself.
All three charter schools in South Bend were created by local residents and business leaders, including the yet-to-open South Bend Career Academy.
Jonathan Plucker once had great hopes that charter schools could break away from the bureaucratic "logjams" that slow progress at large urban districts.
"I thought that charter schools were going to be breeding grounds for innovation," says Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.
Then he studied charter schools and came to the conclusion that, in a lot of cases, they have "roughly the same curriculum and roughly the same teaching strategies" as public schools.
For the past five years, he says, he's worked with schools across the country as his center has provided technical assistance to the U.S. Department of Education's charter school office.
Still, he says, "I'm optimistic that charter schools can do some very different things."
By the numbers
Recently, the public debate has centered on studies about charter schools. There have been lots of them. Advocates and opponents of charter schools each point to numbers to back up their own arguments.
The latest study came out this month from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, scoring a point for charter schools. It found that student performance grew just as much or more at the charter schools than at public schools in Indiana.
By contrast, a study by The Indianapolis Star this month found poorer results for Indiana's charter schools on the ISTEP tests and in high school reading and math scores. But the Stanford study used different methods, closely comparing students by their demographics.
The Stanford study took 8,959 fourth- through ninth-graders at 42 charter schools in Indiana and looked at the results of their state achievement tests from 2004 to 2008.
Overall, 43 percent of charter school students showed significantly better gains in reading and 26 percent in math.
There wasn't much difference for 55 percent of charter school students in reading and 74 percent in math.
Hispanic students in charter schools didn't improve much differently than Hispanic kids in public schools.
But black kids in charter schools did better. Their math scores improved at about the same rate as white kids in traditional public schools. Math scores for students in poverty also improved more than their counterparts in public schools.
Out of 20 states that the Stanford center has studied, Indiana is among five that showed more gains by charter schools in both math and reading. There were some other states where charter schools showed more gains just in math or just in reading.
How many more charter schools could or would appear in Indiana?
Ohio flung its doors wide open to charter schools. The first one opened in 1998, and then the state was flooded with them. It became a "cautionary tale" because the state's quality controls were weak, leading to problems early on with the schools, says Terry Ryan.
He's vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which was deeply involved in Ohio's charter school movement. Ryan says he's observed a much different approach in Indianapolis, where the mayor's office sponsored schools with a go-slow approach.
"An explosion of growth isn't good if it's a lot of bad schools," agrees Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, whose website states that more than 3,500 students sit on waiting lists for Indiana's charter schools.
Before allowing a school to open, Simnick says, you have to make sure there's a solid plan, community and financial support, a strong board and know-how. He says Indiana does scrutinize for that, particularly in its charter schools bill.
The bill also would add sanctions for charter schools that fail to perform on the ISTEP test -- with even the option of shutting a school down. State schools Superintendent Tony Bennett sees that as a way of adding accountability and ensuring quality.
The national KIPP Network gained attention for its charter schools in the documentary film "Waiting for Superman," which makes a big argument for school reforms.
KIPP runs 99 schools across the country with three in Indiana -- two in Gary and one in Indianapolis. So far, spokesman Steve Mancini says, there have been no new requests for more of them in Indiana. KIPP doesn't open schools these days unless it's solicited by the community, he says.
KIPP's trademarks include a longer school day -- 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- plus some Saturday programs and a standard three-week summer school.
Since KIPP began in 1994, Mancini says, 85 percent of its students have graduated on to college. Its student bodies include 95 percent who are black or Hispanic and 80 percent who are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
National organizations that run charter schools won't come into a community unless they see a market, Ryan says. After all, the state gives funding per student. So, he explains, "If they don't get the kids, they don't get the money."
Ohio has reached its capacity for charter schools, he says. Families stick with what he calls "brand loyalty" -- either charter or traditional public.
In Colorado, the majority of the 148 charter schools are sponsored by school districts. Only two districts in Indiana sponsor them.
Kevin Teasley doesn't see why it's so much more political here. He's founder of the Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, which is handling the administrative duties for the South Bend Career Academy.
Chuck Little, director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association, responds, "Why would a local school district authorize a charter school that it would have no control over?"
Roughly five years ago, urban school superintendents in Indiana talked about seeing whether Indiana University might authorize charter schools for the public districts. It wasn't a serious effort, and it didn't go far, Little recalls.
"We were looking for ways to improve," says Little, who's based in Indianapolis as a clinical professor in IU's school of education.
Little thinks the charter schools bill has wandered from its original intent because it has so much other stuff tacked onto it.
"It's not a public school if it's run by a private college," he says, referring to a provision that would allow private colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools.
The bill, he says, is "not pure at all."
Back at the hoops match at Beiger, Anne White says her granddaughter used to go to Veritas Academy in South Bend. The girl's mom and other parents carpooled because the charter school lacks busing. But the carpooling didn't work out. So, the child is now at Twin Branch Elementary School.
If there are going to be more charter schools, she asks, "Where will they be and how will they (students) get there?"
House Bill 1002 addresses that. It would make public schools either share their transportation funding with charter schools or provide busing for those students. Opponents say that's just another way that the bill would take away from public schools. On Wednesday, a Senate committee eliminated that part of the bill. But there still are chances for it to drop back into the bill -- or for the whole bill to be rewritten or die.
Another mom, Lou Ann Welsh, worries that charter schools also would draw away the motivated parents.
"After a while, the public schools may just be what's left (in terms of families)," she says.
That's a common argument, Plucker says, telling The Tribune, "You're the third person to ask me about that today."
But when he looked into it, he says, he couldn't find much evidence of it.
Welsh adds, "I want public schools to improve so they're (families) not tempted to go."
Staff writer Joseph Dits:
EDUCATION: CRUCIAL CHOICES