Indiana online schools have success lobbying lawmakers despite dismal academics

In Indiana’s education lobbying landscape, online schools seem to have carved out a small — but powerful — niche.

Over the past decade, the major operators of virtual charter schools in Indiana have all either donated to political campaigns, lobbied, or both, spending thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in the process.

And so far, it appears it might be having an impact. In the nearly 10 years since virtual schools began, Indiana’s Republican-dominated legislature has passed policies favoring school choice in general and charter schools, including virtual charters. Laws that expanded virtual schools and offered them more flexibility have found favor, while ones that would restrict them have mostly fallen flat.

This political support comes despite the schools’ track records of low test scores, high turnover, and, in the case of some, single-digit graduation rates.

“There are many, many bills, but the bills that are restrictive in nature, they don’t get out of committee,” Gary Miron, a researcher from Western Michigan University who has studied virtual schools for the left-leaning National Education Policy Center, said of legislation nationwide. “If they do, they never pass, and that’s because of the lobbying and special interests.”

The story is similar nationally, as laws that would add oversight for virtual schools have been unsuccessful, said Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University in California. A 2017 report from the National Education Policy Center said that of the more than 200 virtual school bills proposed in more than half of state legislatures in 2015 and 2016, fewer than 40 percent became law.

“I can’t think of a single one where the regulation has gotten more restrictive,” Barbour said. “Historically, it goes the way in favor of the cyber charter companies.”

It is not uncommon or illegal for charter schools, school districts, and other education groups — many of which far outspend virtual charter schools — to lobby lawmakers. But the practice raises questions about whether the donations are having undue influence or are impacting politicians’ decisions.

Indiana lawmakers have passed on several chances to rein in fast-growing virtual charter schools, including three bills that were never heard last year. This legislative session could be different — as lawmakers and policymakers are expected to consider a series of recommendations for stricter rules made by the state board of education. Through charter schools and online programs, nearly 19,000 Indiana students learn online for most of the time.

K12 Inc., which operates one full-time virtual charter school and several online schools or programs within districts, has given at least $90,000 to Indiana candidates races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, which operates two full-time virtual charter schools and is now owned by Pearson Education, has given about $20,000. The for-profit companies, which are the largest online learning providers in the country, have also spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission.

Now that Connections is housed under Pearson, it no longer makes campaign contributions per Pearson’s corporate policy, a company official said, though the company continues to spend money on lobbying.

Jeff Kwitowksi, senior vice president of public affairs for K12 Inc., said lobbying and engaging with lawmakers ensures the company and the schools it operates understand state law and are following it. And because online learning is “relatively new,” he said, lobbying gives K12 a chance to help lawmakers learn how virtual schools work. He pointed to bills that have created flexibility in how states measure attendance or funding as examples of how other states have needed to re-examine laws with online education in mind.

“Those are policies that need to be addressed in order for digital learning to be allowed to be offered,” Kwitowski said. “Our goal is to advocate for good policy and practice for online and blended schools … That’s just like every other organization that engages in lobbying.”

Leaders from Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, have also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana through their own lobbyists and those from firms it pays to lobby on the schools’ behalf. Since 2016, about $90,000 has been spent on lobbying by the schools and on their behalf, records show.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School revealed widespread low performance and questionable business and spending practices. The schools have also posted some of the lowest graduation rates in the state over the past couple years. In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy said they have only lobbied lawmakers to get more flexibility for people in the military to take online courses and earn a diploma.

Indeed, political spending on education in Indiana is a big business for many organizations besides virtual charters. State records show Indianapolis Public Schools, as well as other Marion County districts, have registered lobbyists and spent money on lobbying in recent years, as have unions, advocacy groups, and individuals. The Indiana State Teachers Association, through its political action committee, has spent millions contributing to campaigns and lobbying. Other groups that advocate for school choice, such as the PAC for the Institute for Quality Education, spend hundreds of thousands.

And virtual charters have lobbied for some restrictions. A 2017 provision pushed by online school supporters allows schools to expel students who fail to regularly participate in class.

Rob Kremer, director of government relations for Pearson, said that law passing “was not a small thing” and keeps the schools from continuing to collect state dollars for students who aren’t learning. Critics, however, have said it’s evidence for how charter schools can choose their students, which they say traditional public schools don’t have the same freedom to do.

“That was the result of several years of talking to legislators and explaining why it was needed and convincing enough to support it,” Kremer said.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education chairman, was the bill’s author, and has authored or been a key player in most of the state’s virtual school legislation. Behning has received $5,500 in campaign contributions from K12 Inc. during campaigns from 2006 to 2018, and $1,000 from Connections Academy in 2008, according to state data.

Behning said campaign contributions and lobbying efforts don’t play much of a part in how he legislates, even though he has spoken with lobbyists from virtual schools, as well as parents and school officials over the years.

“I can’t say campaign dollars have any impact as to how I’ve looked at (virtual schools),” Behning said. “I’ve always tried to focus on school reform, trying to do what’s best for kids and (have been) kind of agnostic to the system.”

One area were there hasn’t been much legislative movement is virtual charter schools’ share of state funding. Although it has increased over the past decade, it has held constant at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive despite proposals from some lawmakers and support from school leaders.

Kwitowski and Kremer said the money their companies spend on lobbying or other political activity is all from their companies’ separate budgets, not from any of the public dollars schools receive from the state. Kremer said he thinks it’s a shame that lobbying is commonly viewed as something that is “dirty” or “influence peddling.”

“Any proposed legislation that affects the operation in any way of a K-12 school is something we need to know about,” Kremer said. “We’re not in that mix of whatever access or influence a political contribution might win you. To the extent we’re effective with our advocacy efforts, it’s because of the strength of the policy ideas that we bring.”

Another wrinkle in the conversation is that Indiana Virtual School was listed as having donated $2,500 to six political candidates between 2016 and 2018. This could pose a problem because  Indiana Virtual School is technically another name for the tax-exempt nonprofit Indiana Virtual Education Foundation that operates the school, and it would violate IRS rules if the school donated to political campaigns. (For-profit companies such as K12 Inc. and Connections are permitted to donate to campaigns.)

In looking at the actual donation checks, some lawmakers and political party spokespeople told Chalkbeat the contributions actually came from Indiana Virtual School’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, or A Simple Reminder, a company owned by Stoughton’s son. It appears they were all accidentally recorded as being from IVS.

On one of the contribution checks, for example, from A Simple Reminder, “Indiana Virtual School” was written as a note off to the side. All of the contributions with Indiana Virtual School listed as the contributor also were reported using the school’s current address or addresses associated with Stoughton.

The school said the state records reflected an “innocent error,” and the school is working with the campaigns to correct the reports, the spokesman said an email.

“Neither Indiana Virtual School Foundation, Indiana Virtual School or Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy made any political contributions to political campaigns between 2016-2018, per a signed affidavit by the schools’ accountant,” the statement said.

Looking ahead to the coming legislative session, virtual charter school leaders say they are monitoring how state lawmakers will make proposals regarding several State Board of Education measures targeting virtual schools, including limits to growth and stricter rules for who can oversee virtual schools.

Kremer said some of the recommendations, such as mandatory student and parent orientation prior to enrollment, are priorities for his company’s legislative work this year.

Kwitowski said issues like how student mobility — which virtual school leaders say is a common challenge for them — affects how states measure school performance is at the top of the list for K12 Inc. Accountability models like Indiana’s A-F grades, he said, were “written and designed for traditional schools.”

“It’s moving beyond just sort of the choice debate into how to properly assess these schools and the students in this unique learning environment,” Kwitowski said. “These are highly mobile schools … a lot of policymakers are receiving that well and understanding that for these types of schools, we may need to look differently at that.”