Gov. Mitch Daniels’ aggressive educational agenda, charter schools are playing a key role in his vision to move our state forward. Yet, in the public eye, charters are perhaps the most misunderstood piece of the educational landscape.

Charter schools are far more regulated and accountable than traditional schools. As a chief financial officer and attorney who has worked in the charter movement for more than six years, and also as an elected member of my hometown traditional School Board, I am fortunate to see education from both sides. Charters have very little freedom. They are required to meet the same educational regulations as traditional schools. Conversely, traditional schools have many of the same freedoms that charters do if they choose to exercise them.

Educationally, charter school students take ISTEP just as their peers in traditional schools do. Special education students must be properly served, teachers must meet Indiana licensing requirements, and charter schools must complete all of the same extraordinary reporting requirements to the Indiana Department of Education.

Financially, charter schools are fully audited by the State Board of Accounts, just as traditional schools are. The public money must be accounted for, and rightly so. Charter schools are expected to meet all of these requirements on about half the funds that traditional schools are awarded.

Charters are given the legal power to operate by an authorizer. In Indiana, the two most active authorizers are the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University. These organizations take their roles quite seriously by closely monitoring the operations and academic progress of the schools they support. Thus, in addition to meeting the same state educational and financial requirements, charter schools must meet all of the reporting and monitoring requirements of their authorizers as well.

If a traditional school fails, not much happens in reality. A charter school will get closed down. How is that more freedom than a traditional public school?

The two main areas where charter schools supposedly have more freedom are teachers and curriculum. Charter schools don’t have teachers unions, although they are not prohibited. If a teacher does not perform, charters may terminate him or her without having to jump through union hoops and contractual protections. In contrast, if a teacher performs really well, the charter also has more freedom to compensate accordingly and not be confined to a negotiated teacher contract. That’s good for students, as it helps charter schools attract outstanding teacher talent. On the other hand, charters are free to experiment with different curriculums, but since all students have to pass ISTEP and meet state standards, exactly how experimental can that curriculum be? Traditional schools do have the same flexibility with curriculums and the same testing accountability. Magnet schools, anyone?

Closely monitored and equally accountable for educational performance and financial and legal operations, charter schools are not pockets of educational chaos draining public funds from traditional schools. They provide a valuable and viable option for educating children and should be embraced as just one of many educational options in Indiana’s educational toolbox.

By Dana Johnson, published by Indianapolis Star