Here’s how Indiana lawmakers propose — again — to rein in virtual charter schools

Indiana lawmakers are proposing new bills to address what they view as shortcomings of virtual charter schools, a year after three attempts to create restrictions went nowhere.

The bills, filed in recent days, tackle several aspects of virtual schools that have drawn criticism: how new students are onboarded, who oversees the schools, and how quickly they are growing.

The proposals stem from recommendations made by the Indiana State Board of Education’s virtual school review committee, which has met over the past year to come up with solutions to some of the schools’ most pressing problems, including low test scores and graduation rates, a lack of student and parent participation, and the need to improve their oversight.

The bills vary widely in their ramifications for virtual schools and will face different amounts of resistance from virtual school leaders. A bill authored by Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, would add a requirement that schools and policymakers alike widely agree on: mandatory orientations for virtual school students and parents before students enroll so they understand how virtual education works and what is expected of them.

Behning said student and parent engagement is essential at the schools, which enroll students from across the state who work remotely. About 13,000 students attend virtual charter schools in Indiana.

“If you don’t have an engaged adult, there’s no way you’re going to have any success,” he said. “If a kid doesn’t turn on a computer, there’s no way we can have online instruction.”

Virtual school leaders said in state board of education committee hearings last year that they supported a move to require orientations for students and parents.

“We’re convenient for a lot of families that need a flexible learning environment, but we can’t just be a place where a kid lands because he or she doesn’t want to go to a physical classroom or because they think they just hide and do nothing,” Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, told Chalkbeat in July.

Schools can — and many do — already hold orientations for new students and parents. Behning’s bill would make them a condition of enrollment. If students don’t complete them, the virtual charter schools can keep them from enrolling. A similar requirement in the bill for virtual schools within school districts does not have the same consequence.

The bill would also allow the state board to create regulations for virtual schools within school districts, including ones on orientations, staff training, student engagement and counseling, and tracking attendance. Behning said he also intends to amend the bill to include provisions that would no longer allow school districts to be statewide charter school authorizers — a loophole in the state’s current law. It was an oversight that the measure was not included in the initial bill, he said.

A proposal by Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville, the new Senate education committee chairman, would put limits on how quickly a virtual school could grow, prevent a chronically failing virtual charter school from taking new students, and reduce a financial incentive for authorizers to oversee big virtual charter schools.

Raatz’s bill could also potentially take steps toward having the state board of education intervene at the troubled Indiana Virtual School by taking away the authority of its oversight agency, Daleville schools. Education leaders have raised concerns about the small district’s ability to oversee a statewide virtual charter school.

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Merrillville, authored a bill that would make dramatic changes to how the schools are run and overseen — and could face a tough road to passage. The bill would create one statewide authorizer — the Indiana Charter School Board — to take responsibility for the schools, as opposed to numerous smaller authorizers. As a statewide authorizer, the state charter board would be expected to monitor each school and ensure it is meeting the goals in its charter agreement.

It’s unlikely this provision will gain favor with Republicans, and Melton told Chalkbeat that he might consider getting rid of it. The suggestion of a single virtual charter school authorizer was introduced by the state board committee in an early draft of its legislative recommendations, but the full board voted to nix the idea after some board members said they were concerned it would limit school choice.

Behning, too, has said he doesn’t support a single authorizer, though he said he wouldn’t rule out hearing the bill if it made it to his committee.

In a December state board meeting, Percy Clark, superintendent of Indiana Virtual School said a single authorizer would discourage innovation.

“The recommendation to make the authorizer uniform contradicts the mission of the charter movement, defeating any possibility of innovation and uniqueness,” Clark said. “This recommendation takes our state down the path of blandness, a boring future, a one-size fits all mentality.”

Melton’s bill would also set a strict enrollment cap for virtual charter schools of no more than 1,200 students per year. Most of the state’s five full-time virtual charter schools enroll between 2,000 and 5,000 students each. Melton’s is the only bill that places more financial reporting requirements on the schools, asking them to report to the state their projected costs-per-student each year. If the state board determines their costs are lower than what they receive from the state, they can reduce the schools’ funding accordingly.

Now, the schools receive 90 percent of the state funding that traditional schools receive, and virtual school critics have said that might still be too high given that the school’s have fewer overhead costs. Although Senate Republicans have in the past moved to keep virtual school funding at 90 percent, House Republicans have requested upping it to 100 percent, arguing that all students should be funded at the same level regardless of school type.

Raatz’s bill suggests reducing funding to 90 percent for schools where students receive 15 percent or more of their instruction online.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School revealed widespread low performance and questionable business and spending practices, setting off a statewide conversation about how the schools are serving students and what regulations need to be added. But Indiana Republicans were hesitant to acknowledge or act on the issue. Last year, three bills that would have added more oversight for virtual charter schools were introduced, but none were heard in committees.

In December, Gov. Eric Holcomb called for state education leaders to review the schools, echoing earlier statements encouraging Indiana to prioritize improving them.

Melton said in a press conference last week that virtual charter schools in the state “are suffering” and are “not participating or giving back” as the state originally might have planned. He went as far as suggesting that the money spent on virtual charter schools might be better spent on teacher pay raises, a hot topic during this year’s legislative session.