Troubled Indiana virtual schools poised to lose charters amid claims thousands of students weren’t put in classes

Two of the state’s largest, most troubled virtual schools were put on notice Monday night that their charters could be revoked after their authorizer alleged that thousands of enrolled students went semesters or sometimes years without earning any credits or even signing up for classes.

Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, also failed to properly accommodate students with disabilities or file required audits in recent years, said Daleville Public Schools Superintendent Paul Garrison, who recommended that his district’s board vote to begin the process to pull the schools’ charters. One school also allegedly failed to follow protocols for administering state standardized tests.

“It was apparent that there were a great number of students that weren’t being served,” said Donna Petraits, a spokeswoman for the district, adding that the district waited until now to make the decision because only recently “enough evidence came to light.”

Garrison and board members said little outside of prepared remarks. They directed questions to Petraits.

Monday’s unanimous vote could ultimately force the closure of the schools, which enroll more than 6,000 students and have collected tens of millions of dollars in state funding. It’s also a blow to the virtual schools across Indiana, which have grown rapidly in recent years but shown dismal academic results that have attracted the attention of state lawmakers.

There were no representatives from the virtual schools at the meeting, nor any students or parents. Chalkbeat could not immediately reach officials from either school Monday night for comment. Leaders from the schools have in the past told state policymakers that their students frequently move around and come in without enough credits to graduate on time, making educating them more difficult.

Among the most damning allegations: Last spring, 1,563 students enrolled at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy for a full year were not signed up for any classes, according to data provided by Daleville.

More than 2,000 Indiana Virtual School students enrolled all year did not earn credits each semester in the 2016-17 school year, data showed. Nearly 500 students had not been assigned to any courses throughout the entire year.

The schools have 15 business days to appeal Monday’s board vote and can testify in person at a public hearing April 1 at the district office. On April 8, the Daleville board will make a final decision. The schools could seek to stay open under a new oversight agency, but Indiana law makes it tough for low-rated schools to get a reprieve, and the state would have to sign off on the switch.

The rare step to revoke the charters comes as lawmakers threaten to strip Daleville of its authorizing ability over doubts that a school district can effectively oversee a large, statewide virtual charter school. Daleville, which has 961 students in its traditional schools, is the only public district in Indiana that authorizes full-time virtual charter schools and received $1 million in state funds in 2017 for overseeing the schools.

Few schools in the state have been as consistently low-performing as Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. In the past five years, both schools have posted single-digit graduation rates and test passing rates far below state averages. Indiana Virtual School has received three consecutive F grades from the state.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation also revealed that Indiana Virtual School was charged millions of dollars by its founder’s company in management fees and rent at the same time the founder acted as school board president, which experts said raised concerns over conflicts of interest.

If Daleville upholds its decision to revoke the schools’ charters, the schools would have a year to find another authorizer or shut down operations.