House lawmakers make minor changes to online schools bill, but stricter plans remain up in the air

House lawmakers have added three new amendments to a bill designed to rein in online schools: measures targeting student residency, absences, and teacher training.

The new amendments unanimously passed Thursday and represented some of the few areas of bipartisan agreement over how Indiana should handle the troubled schools. Tougher proposals and amendments introduced this year and earlier have not gained traction with Republicans, who have been loathe to add regulations for charter schools in general.

One of the amendments would require that virtual schools — charter schools as well as those within traditional school districts — only enroll students who are Indiana residents. If the schools are found to have enrolled students who aren’t residents, they’d have to return a portion of their funding to the state. While state officials confirmed this is already a rule for virtual schools, lawmakers said the amendment was a response to questions raised in committee and would solidify the requirement in state law.

Under the second amendment to the bill, if virtual students are too frequently absent, schools would be allowed to expel them. And the third measure would order that virtual school teachers complete the same required training as traditional school teachers.

The amendments join other provisions in the bill that would require mandatory orientations for virtual school students and parents before students enroll; allow the state board to create regulations for virtual schools within school districts; and prohibit school districts from being statewide charter school authorizers. Some of the proposals grew out of recommendations from the Indiana State Board of Education, which spent months reviewing the schools as the result of a call-to-action from Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary who authored the amendments, said he hopes the bill will boost oversight of the troubled schools, which have low test scores and graduation rates and frequently see students leave after less than a year.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the House Education Committee, said the amendments are another effort to ensure online school students, who are spread across the state, are active in their education. “We’re really trying to focus on trying to make sure the kids are engaged,” Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “The only way virtual education is going to work is if we have engaged students and engaged parents.”

Debate over these provisions was minimal. Both Behning and Smith said they were happy with the bill so far, though Smith said he’d like to see the state go further in the future to ensure virtual schools don’t get to keep state dollars for students who leave mid-year. Currently, all Indiana schools are paid based on one enrollment count date. If students come and go after that, schools do not receive more funding or have to return any to the state.

“There needs to be more than one count,” Smith said. “The money ought to follow the child. And with the technology we have today we can allocate that money on a monthly basis.”

Some of the changes the House is considering — such as the district authorizing provision — would be dramatic. But for the most part, the bill does not address some of the more serious problems facing virtual charter schools, such as limiting how fast they can grow or replicate. Nor does the bill address what would happen to the students who virtual schools would be allowed to expel.

Two other bills are still on the table and have yet to be heard in committee — one from Merrillville Democrat Sen. Eddie Melton and one from Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeff Raatz, a Republican from Centerville. Melton’s sweeping bill would create one statewide authorizer — the Indiana Charter School Board — to take responsibility for the schools, as opposed to numerous smaller authorizers. It would also set a strict enrollment cap for virtual charter schools of no more than 1,200 students per year.

Raatz’s bill 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.

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 have been 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.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, a Democrat from Indianapolis who proposed two amendments to the bill that were rejected by the majority of lawmakers Thursday, had harsh words for his colleagues who would continue to support the schools. Historically, virtual charter schools have received Ds and Fs from the state. DeLaney’s amendments would have required that virtual schools only enroll students with disabilities who have special education plans or that the state study the aforementioned enrollment rules.

“If you really believe in choice, you ought to believe in good charter schools and enforce the requirement that they be good,” DeLaney said. “You are killing the choice movement, ultimately, by keeping this cancer on your slogan.”