Charter schools, state face off in tuition dispute before appellate panel

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A panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday between numerous Indiana charter schools and the state regarding several million dollars in unpaid tuition the schools say was not provided to cover costs for students.

In State of Indiana, et al. v. Indiana Connections Academy, Inc., et al., 18A-PL-02634, Indiana Connections Academy Inc. and various other charter schools sued the state, arguing that they were owed a semester’s worth of unpaid tuition support funding.

The Marion Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of the charter schools, ordering the state to pay a total of more than $8.5 million in tuition support to Indiana Connections Academy, Andrew J. Brown Charter School and Aspire Charter Academy. Those schools, along with Rural Community Schools and National Heritage Academies, sued to recover tuition support they alleged the state failed to pay for the public education supplied to students enrolled during the 2012-13 school year.

Both parties presented arguments to an appellate panel on Monday afternoon consisting of Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik and judges John Baker and Robert Altice. Deputy Attorney General  Frances Barrow first requested the appellate court reverse the trial court’s ruling that held an implied contract required the state to pay tuition support in arrears.

When asked if the state had an obligation to provide education for its students, Barrow answered affirmatively, but noted that a free public-school system implies a level of educational subsidization that the framers did not endorse and, at most, rejected.

“So, in saying that that discrete four months at the beginning has to be paid for by the state is going beyond what it seems the framers would have intended, assuming they could even anticipate the existence of charter schools,” Barrow said. “We’re arguing that there was no fundamental right to tuition support in those first four months. That even if they should have been funded, that the paying in arrears into perpetuity is a totally irrational system.”

Representing the charter schools, attorneys Alan Brown and Mike Limrick disagreed, arguing against the state’s position that no authority or statute existed to support the proposition that tuition support was to be paid in arrears.

“That’s simply not correct,” Brown said.

The attorneys requested three things of the appellate court: First, enter judgment on the plaintiff’s express contract theory; second, assess a late payment penalty on the amounts owed to the plaintiffs; and third, as to Indiana Connections Academy, increase the judgment to account for all funding due to the school in accordance with the formula.

Limrick argued that Article 8, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution states the General Assembly, and no one else, has the duty to provide tuition-free public education.

“And so, it cannot be that a public school has to operate for a semester and never see dollars in tuition support for that semester,” Limrick said. “The fact that the statute’s set up so that your stream of payments will start in January and run through December says nothing about whether you’re actually entitled to receive payments for the fall semester education you provide, which makes sense.”

Turning back to Barrow, the chief judge asked, “The bottom line is, is that you’re saying that the legislature has the discretion not to pay for four months of an education for kids?”

“It does,” Barrow said.

“… And the big picture is, from the constitutional standpoint, let’s say under the law charter schools simply could not function, they couldn’t survive, they all closed. Students could still get education elsewhere at traditional public schools,” Barrow said. “There would be no constitutional violation in that instance. So, there’s no basis under the law, under any statute, to give relief to the schools, and we would ask the court to reverse on that basis and then affirm on the other claims.”

The full oral arguments in the case can be viewed here.

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