Can Indiana recoup funds from troubled virtual schools? That might be part of a state investigation

Indiana education officials expect to investigate allegations that many students at two troubled virtual schools never signed up for or completed classes — possibly including whether the state can recoup some of the funding it sent to the schools.

“We’re discussing internally and we anticipate a full review of the situation,” said Adam Baker, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, who also said the state had received complaints about the two schools in the past.

Wide-ranging accusations about no-show students, ignored testing protocols, and failure to deliver special education services were brought against Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, this week by their charter authorizer, the Daleville public school district. The allegations prompted Daleville’s board to begin the process to revoke the schools’ charters — a path that could end with the schools closing. The virtual schools have denied the claims, calling them inaccurate and incomplete.

One area that the state could explore is whether it will attempt to recoup the money it paid the virtual schools to educate students, as several other states have when online schools have been caught inflating enrollment. In Indiana, schools are funded on a per-student basis, and last year the schools brought in nearly $40 million from the state.

Baker said that while there is no evidence to suggest the schools fabricated students, whether Indiana can recoup funds would be part of the state’s review. Indiana law, though, doesn’t appear to specifically address this issue, he said.

“From what’s reported to us, we haven’t seen evidence that would indicate they are fraudulently creating students,” Baker said. “The large majority of students they enroll were previously enrolled at other Indiana schools.”

Charter school advocates said it would make sense for the state to pursue this action in light of Daleville’s claims that thousands of students went entire semesters or years without being signed up for or earning credits for classes.

“Given the eye popping numbers here at play, I think it’s definitely worth looking into,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

In a high-profile online school scandal last year, one of the nation’s largest schools, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — known as ECOT — was accused of inflating enrollment numbers and bringing in more dollars from the state of Ohio than it should have. The school was closed, and the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the school to repay about $80 million to the state.

And in California, a chain of online schools run by online giant K12 Inc. were accused of inflating enrollment numbers and using misleading advertisements. The attorney general pursued an investigation and reached a $8.5 million settlement with K12 in 2016. State lawmakers went on to ban for-profit management companies from running charter schools.

The virtual charter schools called into question the accuracy of the data Daleville released on credits students earned and whether they were assigned to courses during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

“It will suffice to state the data used by [Daleville] and the allegations based thereon are inaccurate,” Thomas Burroughs, the lawyer for the schools, said in an email.

Neither Burroughs nor a spokeswoman who spoke on behalf of the schools elaborated on exactly how the data and claims made by Daleville were incorrect. In a statement, the district said it requested student data on course completion, attendance, and enrollment from the state, which was submitted by the virtual schools per state reporting rules.

Baker said the state does collect data from schools on attendance and course completion, but it doesn’t track whether students are signed up for classes — that’s up to the schools, he said. The district did not immediately respond to questions about the origin of data showing students weren’t assigned to courses.

In an emailed statement Wednesday night, the virtual schools’ superintendent, Percy Clark, said all students are enrolled in courses, and students who don’t participate are withdrawn within 90 days, in line with state policy saying virtual charter schools can remove students who are not engaged.

He said that the virtual schools, like other public schools in the state, do not receive additional funding for new students who enroll throughout the year.

“The state does not lose any money because our schools have a significant number of students enrolling each week,” Clark wrote.

It’s unclear whether other state agencies will decide to review the virtual charter schools, which were the subject of a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. The attorney general’s office said they did not have “any publicly disclosable information on either” school and could not “confirm nor deny any investigation.”

The state has previously received complaints about the schools, Baker said, though it is not uncommon for parents to make such complaints. Baker said the complaints came through phone calls and concerned state ISTEP tests and “overall student services.” He could not give a time frame for when they occurred.

Update: Feb. 27, 2019: This story has been updated to include a statement from the virtual charter schools.