Why critics say Indiana isn’t going far enough to address online schools’ biggest problems

Some Indiana leaders and school choice advocates are skeptical that Republican-backed bills proposed this year to rein in virtual charter schools can actually address the schools’ most serious problems.

The two bills largely ignore some of the stronger measures proposed by the state board of education and national school choice advocates that would slow down growth and reduce financial incentives for schools and authorizers. The critics say those changes could have helped Indiana avoid major issues like those alleged last week at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy by their authorizer, Daleville public schools.

“It looks like the legislature is going to go with the path of least resistance on this,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “They are [considering] some small, incremental steps that will be helpful, but they are likely not going to solve all of the major problems that we have here.”

Indiana Republicans similarly pulled punches when it came to virtual schools in 2018, when a few bills that would have put in place stricter rules for schools and their authorizers went nowhere. But the issue of regulating virtual schools took on more urgency last week, as Daleville announced it was beginning the process of revoking the charters of the two schools because of allegations that many of their students weren’t registered or completing classes and they failed to serve students with disabilities.

“I don’t feel we’ve reached a point of accountability that virtual charters desperately need at this point,” said Democrat Sen. Eddie Melton, from Merrillville, who introduced a bill that included the recommendations of the state board — but was never heard in committee

Both the House and Senate bills would require students at virtual charters and district-run online schools to complete an orientation before enrolling, and they also would change state law to prohibit school districts, like Daleville, from being virtual charter school authorizers. Under the Senate bill, virtual charter networks would not be allowed to transfer students between schools during the same school year. The House bill would allow virtual schools to expel students who are too frequently absent and order that virtual school teachers complete the same required training as traditional school teachers.

Lawmakers defend the bills by saying they’ve been hesitant to impose more stringent rules on virtual charter schools because they don’t want to hamper Indiana families’ ability to choose a school. Advocates, though, are concerned that while those measures make progress, they don’t make sweeping changes that would have caught the problems revealed last week.

The bills wouldn’t require the schools, for instance, to hire more teachers, or put in explicit consequences for when schools earn multiple F grades or students don’t attend school and earn credits. And the bills don’t force virtual schools or their authorizers to squarely face their largest problems: unchecked growth in a system where schools collect more money for every student they enroll. Measures that would slow down virtual schools’ growth or hit their bottom line are more effective ways to enable and encourage them to improve, Ziebarth said

He suggested the state more seriously consider a funding model adopted by states such as Florida and Utah that would give virtual schools half their funding up front, and half after students have completed classes.

States have to recognize “that there are incentives at play here for operations to enroll as many kids as easily and quickly as possible,” Ziebarth said, and that schools are “getting paid for those kids even if they leave, which most of them do.”

Ziebarth and others agreed that the proposal to eliminate school districts’ ability to oversee virtual charter schools would be a crucial step to ensure inexperienced authorizers wouldn’t be able to monitor large, statewide schools — a step they said Indiana should have taken years ago. Those provisions would have removed Daleville as the authorizer for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school and essentially closed them if they didn’t find a new authorizer — but they don’t ensure that the problems at the school couldn’t be repeated under a different kind of authorizer or for future schools.

The bills had been tougher when they were first introduced. Legislators scaled them back to remove provisions that would have lowered fees paid to authorizers, an attempt to reduce what some think is a perverse incentive to keep failing schools open. Lawmakers also removed language that would have kept virtual schools with four years of F grades from enrolling new students — thereby bringing in more public dollars. Those changes were recommended by the Indiana State Board of Education, which conducted a review of virtual education last year.

It’s likely that only one bill will end up passing into law. After that point, state board members would have more specific authority to write additional rules for virtual schools, but it’s unclear how long that process might take, what it would include, or whether there’d be a need for additional legislative approval.

Lawmakers have been quick to back proposals that virtual schools themselves have been enthusiastic about, such as requiring students to complete orientations before they enroll. They’ve also lent stronger support to policies that deal primarily with virtual schools housed within districts, which have recently experienced rapid growth but lack the history and documented problems on the books for virtual charter schools.

“Most of the language in the bills being proposed involve things we’re already doing,” said Melissa Brown, who heads up Indiana Connections Academy, a virtual charter school that has generally posted stronger results than its peers in the state.

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Sen. Jeff Raatz, the author of the Senate bill, and Rep. Bob Behning, the author of the House bill, have frequently focused in public conversations about the bills on the assertion that virtual schools receive students who are challenging to educate and come in academically behind their peers.

“So many of these students are credit deficient and having a difficult time in life, and so that’s something that we need to wrap our arms around,” Raatz said. “To say that it’s the authorizer’s fault or the school’s fault may not be the case.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb said he doesn’t want to have to revisit virtual school policy year after year. He said he’s confident lawmakers will end up with legislation that more fully address the schools’ problems in the next few months.

“I want to make sure we do more than necessary, not come up short this session, so we don’t have to revisit this again next session,” Holcomb told reporters earlier this month. “I’m not willing to say it’s enough yet, but I am comforted by the fact that, again, we have at least two more quarters to go.”