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ICPE-Monroe County files lawsuit to void Seven Oaks' charter



A local coalition filed a lawsuit Tuesday to challenge the authorization of Seven Oaks Classical School by a private, religious entity.

The Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County filed the suit in federal court and called into question an Indiana statute that allows Grace College & Seminary, an evangelical Christian institution, to authorize Seven Oaks’ charter, according to a press release. IU professor Alex Tanford is the lead prosecutor in the case.

ICPE-Monroe County argues this statute, by allowing a private, religious institution to review the public school’s curriculum and deciding whether to authorize the charter, violates the separation of church and state. The suit looks to void the charter authorization and stop taxpayer money from going to Seven Oaks or 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, chair of ICPE-Monroe County, in the 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.”

In an online question-and-answer, ICPE-Monroe County gives context for the lawsuit. Grace College authorized Seven Oaks in January 2016, after its application for a charter received considerable public backlash. Prior to that, it had two unsuccessful applications for a charter to the Indiana Charter School Board.

The lawsuit names three defendants: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick; James Betley, the executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board; and Seven Oaks.

The suit also calls into question part of state law that gives up to 3 percent of a charter school’s public funds to its authorizer.

“That would seem to violate the Indiana constitution, which says flatly that no money may be drawn from the treasury for the benefits of any religious institution,” said Tanford, lead attorney and professor emeritus at IU Maurer School of Law, in the release.

In the question and answer, ICEP-Monroe County said it’s also concerned about the fiscal fallout Seven Oaks has on Monroe County Community School Corporation and Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation.

“When students leave public school districts for charters, the districts lose per-pupil funding, but their expenses do not go down proportionally,” the site says. “The loss of students is scattered across the district.”

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