Several years ago, many Monroe County residents, including many members of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County, wrote letters and spoke against a proposed charter school at three public hearings in three separate application cycles. Despite our efforts, charter authorizer Grace College and Seminary, of Winona Lake, Indiana, granted a charter to Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County in January 2016.
In April 2017, with the generous help of pro bono lawyers, our group sued the state of Indiana in federal court over its practice of delegating authority to religious entities (in this case, charter authorizer Grace College and Seminary) for the spending of public money. We felt, and continue to feel, that having a religious college able to decide how public funds were spent in our community violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. We also objected to Grace College as a religious entity collecting up to 3% of the tuition support going to the schools it authorizes, as charter authorizers are entitled by law to do.
In addition to state entities (the state superintendent and the head of the Indiana Charter School Board), our lawsuit initially named local charter school Seven Oaks Classical School. Seven Oaks asked to be dropped from the suit; we agreed, but then Seven Oaks reversed course and intervened.
Our case was never heard on its merits. The judge assigned to our case decided this past fall that we did not have standing to bring the case. (Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of standing: it “is the term for the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party's participation in the case.”) At the time we filed suit, our group included parents of students in the Monroe County Community School Corporation and Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation; teachers in both school corporations; and community members who were neither parents nor teachers, but who were invested in the health of our public schools.
After the judge’s decision, we considered filing an appeal. This appeal would have gone to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. If the 7th Circuit disagreed with the local judge, she would be asked to consider the merits of our case; if she ruled against us on that, we could appeal again. This process could stretch out over five or six years, and at every stage, there would be expenses for filing and printing, even though our lawyers were donating their considerable time.
On the recommendation of our lawyers, based in part on the judge’s wording of her decision, our board decided not to pursue an appeal, but to channel the energy and funds in our organization in other directions.
The state of Indiana has now asked the judge to require us to reimburse the state for its costs in the suit, $1,491, and the judge has agreed. One of our lawyers says this is a highly unusual move for a constitutional challenge such as ours. Our group’s funds are contributed by our members, overwhelmingly Monroe County residents, to support advocacy for public education—and the state is taking those funds to pay for its defense of privatizing decisions about public money. Something is wrong with this picture. We will pay, but we will not be deterred. If you believe in the principles we are fighting for and would like to contribute to the lawsuit charges from the state, we have set up a DonorBox page: https://donorbox.org/help-us-pay-for-our-lawsuit. If you prefer U.S. mail, our address is P.O. Box 5056, Bloomington, IN 47407.
On behalf of our board, I want to thank all of our members for their support of us as we launched our lawsuit. We are deeply grateful to Alex Tanford, Bill Groth, and Janet Stavropoulos, the legal team who donated their expertise and time to our cause.
In the long run, we will only be successful in the courts if we are successful in the court of public opinion. We know that throughout Indiana, conservative and liberal residents value their public schools. Public schools are the heart of rural and urban communities. They have historically been important employers who provide stable middle-class jobs (though with years of underfunding, that status is under threat). They are where we care for and educate our children and they are legally obligated to educate all kids regardless of family income, religion, ability, or race. The quality of our public schools cannot be separated from the resources we invest in them, or from the prospects for Indiana’s future. Will our state continue to undermine its public education infrastructure?
Moving forward, we are working on outreach to local community groups (Cathy spoke to the Rotary Club Tuesday, April 16) to show how Indiana’s education policies are affecting our school system. We are at the Farmers’ Market. We are planning a regular book club/social hour. We are beginning to plan a summer movie/event and a membership drive. In all of this, we can use your help—your membership, your passion, and your knowledge. Membership alone is so valuable. If you have time as well, can you take an hour to stand at the market, come to a book club meeting or one of our business meetings, connect us with a group that may be interested in our presentation, or help us organize an event? Our power is people power—ordinary people talking to their neighbors and friends, examining information, and showing up for what we value.
Chair, Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County