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Lawsuit Challenges Religious College's Authorization of Indiana Charter School

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A lawsuit is challenging the constitutionality of Indiana's charter school law that has allowed an evangelical Christian college to authorize public charter schools and receive public money.

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County last week filed a lawsuit to invalidate the charter of Seven Oaks Classical School in the small town of Ellettsville and halt public funding from going to the school and its authorizer, Grace College and Seminary. The school, the state's superintendent of public instruction, and the Indiana Charter School Board's executive director are named as plaintiffs.

The superintendent and board declined comment and referred questions to the Indiana Attorney General's Office. 

Terry English, a lawyer for Seven Oaks, questioned in a press release the timing of the lawsuit because Grace College authorizes two other charter schools and Seven Oaks has been open since September.

"Grace College's integrity and ability to participate as a charter school authorizer under Indiana law has never been challenged or even seriously questioned up to this point. And, Grace College is not the only religious or theological institution in the state capable of participating in the charter school approval process," English said in the press release.

Under Indiana law, one of the entities that can authorize charters is a "nonprofit college or university that provides a four year educational program for which it awards a baccalaureate or more advanced degree."

The coalition that is suing is made up of parents, teachers and community members who advocate for public schools in Monroe County, including Elletsville where Seven Oaks operates. Previously, coalition members protested Seven Oak's charter request that was rejected by the state's charter board before it was approved by Grace College.

"Our chief concern is that Indiana law permits religious institutions like Grace College to decide whether to authorize charter schools," said Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, the coalition's chairwoman, in a press release. "Charter schools are taxpayer-supported and take money away from our school corporations, so only state and local officials answerable to the public should be able to authorize them."

The lawsuit claims Grace College, which is in Winona Lake about 120 miles north of Indianapolis, should be forbidden from receiving 3 percent of the charter school's public funds, as allowed for authorizers under Indiana law.

The Seven Oaks charter is an affiliate of something called the Barney Charter School Initiative, an effort by Hillsdale College, a private religious college in Michigan, to open charter schools around the country. Hillsdale has already helped open 17 charters in several states since , including Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Currently, Hillsdale is aiming to open a charter in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune, which reported that the college helps design the curriculum, find a principal, train teachers, and provide other supports of its affiliated charters.

The number and type of charter school authorizers vary greatly throughout the country by state with some allowing only one authorizer and others permitting many entities to sponsor charters. See the laws by each state on the National Association of Charter School Authorizers website.

In addition to charter schools, Indiana also has one of the largest voucher programs in the country, allowing public dollars to pay for private school tuition. Watch a video about Indiana's voucher program.

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