‘How long do we let them fail’? Indiana committee begins review of virtual charter school rules

As a group of state officials convene for the first time Tuesday to examine virtual charter schools, two prominent Indiana Republican lawmakers are calling for the state to intervene in the dismal performance of the schools.

“Whatever we’re doing is not working, because I don’t see where they’re improving,” said Ryan Mishler, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding, “With a virtual, if you’re failing so many years in a row, maybe we need to look at how long do we let them fail before we say you can’t operate.”

Mishler and House education chair Bob Behning told Chalkbeat that the oversight of virtual charter schools needs to be addressed, whether through changes to state law or action by the Indiana State Board of Education.

Indiana will have seven virtual charter schools at the start of the next school year, with three opening in the past year alone and one shutting down amid chronic bad grades. But their academic performance raises questions — four of the five schools graded by the state last year received F ratings.

Even for students who need a more flexible alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Mishler said, “If they’re not doing well, if they’re not graduating, how good is it for them?”

The committee, made up of members of the state board of education, are expected to provide recommendations for regulating the fast-growing sector of virtual charter schools. The formation of the committee comes after a Chalkbeat investigation exposed how Indiana Virtual School has collected tens of millions in state funding — while profiting a company that at the time was led by the school’s founder and board president — but hired very few teachers and graduated about 6 percent of students.

Another Chalkbeat investigation recently highlighted the unusual circumstances surrounding the opening of Indiana’s newest virtual charter school. An investment firm owned by the co-founder and school board treasurer of the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School purchased property that the school will eventually pay rent to use as a farm for hands-on learning. After questions from Chalkbeat about the possible conflict of interest, the co-founder said he would be stepping down from the board when the school opens next month.

“When you hear things like that, it does throw up a red flag,” Mishler said. “I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong, but I do think it’s something we need to look at.”

Chalkbeat has also examined how some statewide online charter schools have used what some consider a loophole in state law in order to open. Instead of looking to well-known authorizing agencies, some virtual charter schools are partnering with school districts that are inexperienced in charter oversight but set to gain financially from the arrangement.

This year, lawmakers hampered efforts to make changes to laws governing virtual charter schools. Three bills that would have put more restrictions on charter school authorizers were killed during last year’s legislative session. And none of the bills directly dealt with virtual schools.

State board committee chair Gordon Hendry said he and board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon will start on Tuesday with a broad overview of virtual school policies, as well as a review of data on school performance and operations.

“This isn’t an issue where we’re talking about 50 students at a particular school,” Hendry said. “We’re talking about thousands of students.”

Neither Hendry nor the other committee members said they had a strong sense of how much authority the state board has to make changes in this policy area, but they hoped to be able to suggest changes in time for next year’s legislative session.

“I know that we have some authority that’s been delegated under state law, but really I’m viewing this from a more global perspective,” Hendry said. “We want to help better inform state lawmakers as to what the current landscape is and really help them arrive at some potential new legislation that helps improve the education provided by Indiana virtual charter schools.”

Behning said the quality of online education in general — not just virtual charter schools — is a national problem.

“I think we have to look at virtual education as a whole — we can’t just say, well, it’s virtual charters,” he said. “If we do anything, we need to be comprehensive in the way we look at it.”

Behning had suggestions for some areas where improvements could be made to online education. He said to address online charter school performance, the state should explore how schools can ensure students are participating. In 2017, he authored a law that requires online charter schools to develop an “engagement policy” that outlines how students should be working. Under the policies, schools can expel students if they do not meet participation requirements.

But aside from that provision, there is little guidance for how virtual schools should track attendance, which schools report themselves to the state — a student could be counted present if they are enrolled in a course but never do any work.

“Technology is probably moving faster sometimes than we are moving in terms of policy and how we’re addressing that,” Behning said. “But I think there is urgency, because anytime a student doesn’t have an opportunity to be successful, that’s a problem.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools.