A new idea for fixing Indiana’s virtual charter schools: Let them choose their students

Some charter school advocates have a provocative idea for how states can address the widespread failures in virtual charter schools: Let them pick and choose their students.

The idea would require the state to create a new kind of school. In that model, virtual schools could be allowed to enroll students based on the likelihood they’d do well in a virtual setting or on the support they have at home — similar to magnet schools that choose students based on test scores or interest in a certain subject. This would mean they could no longer be considered charter schools, which are public schools required by law to enroll any student who wants to attend.

The national charter school organizations say that not all students are suited to online learning and that one potential solution is letting virtual schools screen out those who aren’t. They acknowledge that this proposal should be a last resort for fixing virtual schools’ troubles. Given Indiana’s history with nontraditional school models, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

“One recommendation is actually potentially considering virtual charter schools as something else besides charter schools,” said Veronica Brooks, policy director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Indiana has been quite the leader in the country in terms of thinking about different types of schools.”

Brooks pointed to Indiana’s adult high schools, which grant diplomas but are funded and measured differently from traditional high schools; and innovation schools, which can be charter schools or traditional public schools that are under a district umbrella but get extra autonomy in curriculum, budgeting, and other operations.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, was stunned that it could even be seriously suggested that public schools could get to choose their own students.

“They can pick the students they want to get the results they want to get funded?” DeLaney said. “Other than for a very tiny subset of kids with severe, clinically recognized physical or mental disabilities — other than that, and I do mean tiny subset — I have no interest in supporting virtual charter schools in any way, shape, or form.”

The recommendation came among ideas presented Monday to the Indiana State Board of Education’s virtual charter school committee, which is considering how to better regulate the schools. Representatives from four national charter advocacy groups suggested new regulations and possible changes Indiana could make to existing laws. They mostly agreed on solutions, which included cracking down on lax oversight, controlling growth, reducing financial incentives for opening and overseeing virtual schools, and rethinking metrics of success.

Gordon Hendry, the chairman of the state board committee, said he found the concept of a new school type interesting but said the committee needed more time to discuss it. The committee could make recommendations for policymakers before the legislative session begins in January.

“The fact that there may be special rules, regulations that apply specifically to virtual charter schools is something that we have been thinking about and will continue thinking about as this process moves forward,” Hendry said.

The committee was created after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming virtual charter schools, in response to a Chalkbeat investigation that last year revealed one of the state’s largest virtual schools had years of low performance, was hiring few teachers, and was engaging in questionable spending and business practices.

In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students. But despite rapid growth, the schools have not shown that they can educate most students and get them to graduate. Every virtual school received an F grade from the state in 2017.

For their part, the schools say they enroll many students who struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level.

Changing the nature of what virtual charter schools are or allowing them to limit student enrollment would require major changes to policy and state law. Currently, public schools are not allowed to turn students away. Creating a kind of public school that could, Brooks said, might contradict the original goal of the school choice philosophy.

“The charter school movement in very large part was built on a foundation of open enrollment, that charter schools should be open and accessible to all,” Brooks said.

Other major online school providers, such as K12 Inc., which operates Hoosier Academies schools in Indiana, have spoken out against the idea in the past, saying it can “create perverse incentives for schools to turn away at-risk children.”

Because public school funding is tied to student enrollment, selective enrollment policies could present an interesting dilemma for virtual schools that, like other schools, need students to stay afloat financially.

Enabling virtual schools to turn away some students wouldn’t necessarily require them to fix the problems inherent in virtual learning, where students are often unsupervised and the number of teachers and student support might not keep pace with enrollment.

But virtual charter operators might find the proposal an attractive option in the face of low academic progress. And, some charter school advocates say, it could keep students from languishing in schools that aren’t serving them.

Currently, students who aren’t a good fit for the independent, self-motivated learning environment of online schools, or who lack adult support at home, are more likely to drop out, do poorly on state tests, and not graduate on time, if they do at all.

A 2016 report Brooks’ group did with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said virtual schools aren’t necessarily creating programs that are accessible for all students, and often, their students aren’t equipped to be successful there.

“Indeed many of the biggest operators of full-time virtual charter schools appear to have developed programs that are only designed to be effective with self-motivated students and/or students with highly involved parents,” the report said.

Tellingly, the report stated that if after other policy changes are attempted and the only way to avoid large-scale failure is to limit enrollment, “we believe that many states will decide that full- time virtual school offerings are simply incompatible with the goals of their charter school laws.”

Chad Aldis, with the Fordham Institute, highlighted a different version of selective enrollment that Indiana already uses — what he called “disenrollment.”

In this process, a virtual charter school would still be considered a public charter school, but it would have the freedom to expel a student who was not engaged and meeting the school’s attendance and participation requirements. In a July blog post on Fordham’s website, Aldis justifies the idea:

“Just imagine the impact on a student of doing virtually no work for several years, and the limited ability of the teacher to intervene because of the online nature of the relationship,” Aldis wrote. “It could very well create an unrecoverable gap, especially for disadvantaged students.”

Advocates on Monday praised Indiana’s recently adopted virtual charter school “engagement” policy, which requires schools to contact parents and investigate why a student isn’t participating. It could lead to a student being expelled.

If Indiana were to allow virtual schools to choose its students, the state would have to figure out how to address the large number of students who might be displaced.

Virtual charter school leaders in the state have said their failures stem from their schools being a last resort for many students who are expelled or have other problems learning elsewhere.

But if Indiana were to allow virtual schools to pass those students by, it’s not clear how they would get the education they need and who would take responsibility for them.