Libertarian Charter School Indianapolis

Mayor Bart Peterson of IndianapolisNOTE: This is Doug Martin’s follow-up investigation into Indianapolis charter schools.  For background on this story, please see his “Warren Buffett and Corporate School Reformers to Gentrify/Charterize Indianapolis and Other Cities.” If anyone has any inside information on Challenge Foundation Academy Indy or the Paramount  School of Excellence, briefly mentioned below, please leave comments at the bottom of this article, as well as a facebook page or an email address, so Doug Martin can contact you.  

In 2006, then-Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson approved the proposal to build the Challenge Foundation Academy, a charter school whose board includes two members of Strategic Capital Partners, a firm Peterson would later work for and one of  many behind the charterization/gentrification efforts going on in Indianapolis’ Avondale Meadows, where the charter school is located. The Challenge Foundation Academy Indy is operated and funded by the Challenge Foundation, an anti-climate change promoter and libertarian outfit started in Texas in 1989, which has given millions of dollars to over 182 charter schools across the U.S. (page 11 in PDF box).

Recently, the foundation set up Team Challenge Foundation Academy (Team CFA) to manage eight specific schools in Indiana, Arizona, and North Carolina, the Indianapolis academy being the first one.

The Challenge Foundation is run by Georgia Gulf Corporation’s John D. Bryan, a heavy  Scott Walker donor and Koch Brothers acquaintance fond of watching videos about the national anthem before beginning his school choice meetings (page 1 in PDF text). In June 2010, Bryan, who now lives in Oregon, spoke on privatizing public schools at the Koch Brothers’ secret meeting in Aspen, which included tea-party groups, Glenn Beck, and other notable right-wingers (page 10 in PDF text). In fact, the Challenge Foundation hopes to acquire Koch Brothers money for its charter school movement, and John Bryan and another Team CFA member, Ruppert Reinstadler, Bryan’s son-in-law, met with the Koch Brothers in January in Washington D.C. Not much, of course, is known about the results of that meeting, but it looks like the Walton Foundation is requesting that all fundraising for Team CFA go through the Charter School Growth Fund network (pages 13-14 in PDF).

Combing through the Challenge Foundation’s tax records, NC Policy Watch’s Sarah Ovaska found that the group had made the following anti-public education contributions:

* $10,000 that went to produce “The Cartel,” a documentary criticized by many movie reviewers for its anti-public education slant. The Challenge Foundation described the project as exposing “corruption, waste and intimidation in the nation’s public schools,” according to a 2009 tax filing.

* Another $10,000 grant for a group that planned to send all school districts in the country a film questioning the science behind global warming and what a greener economy will do to “working families whose livelihoods are dependent on energy production.”

* $690,000 went to a handful of public charter schools in North Carolina from 2007 to 2009, including $305,000 that went to Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy.

* Two grants totaling $50,000 went to Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group pushing for more public charters schools as well as private school vouchers.

But this is just a sample of John Bryan’s anti-public school funding.  A leadership board member and funder of the Club for Growth (now led by former Indiana U.S. representative Chris Chocola), Bryan gave $75,000 from 2005 to 2007 to the Betsy DeVos school choice front group All Children Matter, according to the Virginia Public Assess Project. In writing of the DeVos campaign to buy out Florida state Democrats, reporter Matt Dixon also notes that Bryan has recently handed $50,000 to DeVos’ American Federation for Children, a group which funneled millions of dollars through Indiana to help privatize schools nationwide in 2011. The Challenge Foundation has also funded the Friedman Foundation, the school voucher supporting Institute for Justice, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Teach for America, and other corporate school reformers, giving at least $100,000 to the Charles A. Tindley charter school (page 42),  also in Indy’s Avondale area.

Not surprisingly, the Challenge Foundation’s Thomas Jefferson Academy annually throws a diaper drive for an anti-abolition Christian group in North Carolina, has one student club, the Young Republican’s Club, and holds Bryan’s daughter, Cheryl Reinstadler on its board of directors. Whereas this school has come under fire for the Challenge Foundation’s rightwing leanings, another Challenge Foundation school, the Ventana Academic School, was in the news when a female teacher went to jail for one year after attempting to have sex with two 14-year old boys she had lured onto the school grounds with alcohol, pornography, and gifts. To alleviate the problem, the school has changed its name to the Ventana Academy.

Team CFA (which includes Indiana’s own Kevn Teasley of the GEO Foundation) has its sights set on expanding charters big-time. In a late 2011 board meeting in Phoenix, the group laid out plans to start 50 new charter schools in Indiana, Arizona, and North Carolina within the next 12-15 years with $1.5 million from the Challenge Foundation (page 5 in PDF text). Recently, too, Team CFA and the Challenge Foundation have restructured agreements with new charter schools they manage. The schools now will be given loans (and not grants) which can be forgiven, along with interest, after four, five, or six years, if the schools remain in good standing with the foundation (12).  Also, those older schools in which CFA has invested over $500,000 will have to make Team CFA the corporate member of the school, allowing Team CFA to make all decisions concerning the appointments and firing of local board members, articles of incorporation, and bylaws. This corporate control, according to Team CFA, is currently being reviewed, alongside Indiana law, for the Challenge Foundation Academy in Indianapolis (7).

The CFA corporate school model was in place from the get-go. Using $5 million in New Market Tax Credits through the Charter Schools Development Corporation, it was the Challenge Foundation’s plan to privatize everything connected to the Indy school. In their application to then-mayor Bart Peterson, Team CFA, posing as a locally supported group, wrote:

We will be use outside suppliers for many administrative services; for example, PayChex will handle payroll, and we will contract out janitorial services. In-house staff should only be used when it can be clearly shown to be less costly. It is the long-term intent of The Challenge Foundation Academy to bundle as many of the administrative services as possible into common outside suppliers. (page 3 in PDF box)

Peterson, who now is calling for mayoral control and privatization for the entire Indy school system, must have loved the Challenge Foundation agenda. In 2008, in what looks like a scratch-your-back-moment, the Challenge Foundation gave Peterson’s Mind Trust $486,400 (page 3 in PDF) to support its corporate education fellowships, some which were named Challenge Foundation Fellows.


Although Challenge Foundation Academy Indy doesn’t have a Republican Club, it does have a “Gospel Choir” and hundreds of thousands of dollars funneled by Bryan’s rightwing group (page 11 in PDF box). Honored by Indiana superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, in 2010, besides the two Strategic Capital Partners members and the two national Team CFA leaders, Team CFA Indy is stacked with those who support both school privatization and religious issues. Here is a snippet of their bios I’ve drawn up from the group’s outline on an old mayor-Peterson page (11-13 in PDF box) and other sources:

Darell Gene Zink is the leader of the Avondale Meadows gentrification project for Strategic Capital Partners. He has been on the board of directors of a whole slew of corporations, including Coke and Citizens Gas. When the charter school was founded, Zink was directing the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. He has also been involved with the Park Tudor High School, a private school in Indianapolis. Gene Zink is heavily invested in other corporate education reform efforts in Indiana, too, including the front group Educational Choice. A one-time Fifth Third Bank director, Zink in 2007 loaned $52,000 to the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School (page 23 in PDF box ), a charter run by EdPower, the company the Indiana Department of Education has chosen to “turnaround” Indianapolis’ “failing” Arlington Community High School. The interest rate on this loan is unknown.

Strategic Capital Partners’ Charles Garcia has been on the board of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the Indiana Pacers. Garcia has also directed the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP) which with Conexus Indiana offers online degree programs to “prepare Hoosiers for manufacturing and logistics careers.” Conexus Indiana is led by Indiana Educational Roundtable member and consultant to the Indiana Department of Education Carol D’Amico, a former George W. Bush-appointed National Board for Education Sciences board member. D’Amico also has sat on the board of the Indiana Public Charter School Association and the rightwing Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. CICP was also instrumental in advocating the end of social promotion in early elementary classes in Indiana, an initiative first started by Jeb Bush in Florida. Among many others, CICP’s board of directors include members from JP Morgan Chase, Sallie Mae, WellPoint, INC., Duke Energy, the Richard M

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. Fairbanks Foundation, and Eli Lilly (the last two being big funders of Bart Peterson’s Mind Trust).

One national Team CFA board member at the Indianapolis school is Texan William Steinbrook, the executive director of the Challenge Foundation’s Trust for School Reform. Steinbrook, who also is on the board of the Ventana school, is a former pastor at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and was D.C.’s Center for Education Reform’s treasurer. The Challenge Foundation likes to brag that under Steinbrook’s directorship, the group gave out over $18 million to charter schools nationwide.

Another non-Hoosier, Joan Lange was on the Indy board when the school first started.  Currently, she is still Team CFA’s overseer of 70 charter schools across the country and sits or has set on several of the Team CFA school boards. Lange lives in Bonita Springs, Florida.

Bud Melton organized the Second Presbyterian Church’s capital funds campaign in the Hoosier state and is a past leader of the United Way of Central Indiana. He is the former CEO of First Indiana Bank and now owns the Melton Investments & Management, LLC.

Indianapolis attorney Fred Scott, who supposedly has sat on the board of another charter school in Indiana, is the lawyer for the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. Although he was on the original Team CFA Indy board, he now specifically works as CFA’s Counselor at Law.

As principal of Challenge Foundation Academy Indy, Charles Schlegel is a former Teach for America member and a facilitator at the Marian University Turnaround Academy, where he recently mentored past Teach for America member Lanier Echols, who appeared in Mitch Daniels’ Aiming Higher PAC’s anti-teacher seniority ads this spring. Ironically, as principal at Wayland Middle School in Massachusetts, Schlegel violated 2008 campaign laws by sending emails through his school address to parents, begging them to support a local property tax increase to help fund the schools. Now back in Indiana working with charters whose financial records and shady activities are never questioned but endorsed by government officials, Schlegel seems content, with his wife, Mindy, to be a small mover and shaker in the corporate school reform movement. Mindy is the Senior Advisor for Teacher Quality at the Indiana Department of Education. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Indianapolis KIPP charter school, along with the Mind Trust’s Claire Fiddian-Green, a school which ran into a serious problem last year when news broke that an 11-year-old special needs student on a field trip to Boston was allegedly sexually assaulted by four males in 2007. A former Teach for America member, Mindy is also involved in the Democrats for Education Reform.

Last year, as meeting minutes attest to, members of Team CFA and the Challenge Foundation were present when Strategic Capital Partners and Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities established the Strategic Community Venture Fund for their public-private partnership plan to develop “mixed income-housing” projects and charter schools in the Avondale Meadows Community. For the Indy privatization celebration, Warren Buffett even visited a kindergarten class at the Challenge Foundation Academy.

John Bryan was there in Indy, too, in 2011, to quote the U.S. constitution and promote the Avondale project, among other things.


In a State of Accounts audit covering 2005-2007, investigators found several red flags concerning Challenge Foundation Academy Indy. First off, none of the applications for free and reduced school lunches were verified, the report of average daily membership at the school was turned in late (15 in PDF text), and from October 2006 to May 2007, payments made to Fifth Third Bank “were not supported by original bills or invoices” (16). Even worse, auditors found that payments “were made to employees that were not included in the payroll system or on a salary schedule or contract and that payroll taxes “were not properly withheld or remitted” (16).

There have been other problems, too. The school “received notification of noncompliance on compliance Indicator 11 from the IDOE’s Division of Exceptional Learners (DEL); this indicator refers to students’ receiving an evaluation within 60 days of identification” (page 50 in text) Yet, in 2010, the IDOE gave a $1.6 million school improvement grant to Challenge Foundation Academy Indy to start a 200-day school year and implement teacher merit pay.

With help promised from the Walton Family, Team CFA applied to open the Challenge Foundation Academy West in Indy last year, but the group pulled the application for some unknown reason. They plan to be back in 2012, however, to resubmit.

Bryan and Team CFA don’t believe in a government-run school system, but they don’t turn down federal money. Their plan seems less about making money for themselves than about helping destroy a system so that future corporations can profit handsomely, where local control is abolished, and where a fake patriotism conceals a more undemocratic plan.  In fact, Challenge Foundation Properties, its real estate branch, owns the school in Indy and plans on selling it to the school through bonds, if it hasn’t already. Money made from Challenge Foundation Properties is used to invest in building more charter schools. Indiana is one of the group’s main targets.

* Photo credit: Wikipedia

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