When Amy Cannon heard about a new home education program that promised support from trained teachers and a $1,700 stipend for supplies, she was intrigued. Her daughter struggled with e-learning in the spring, and she wanted to home-school her 5- and 7-year-old children. 

“I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to home-school without the support,” said Cannon, an Indianapolis stay-at-home mother. “Going in person wasn’t an option for our family, and seeing how virtual school has gone, I’m so glad we’ve home-schooled.”

Cannon’s children enrolled in a new K-6 public virtual school, called Tech Trep Academy, that caters to home-schoolers. Families have the flexibility to teach their children however they wish because the school doesn’t require students to take traditional classes or complete homework. Officials assume students are in attendance unless a parent says otherwise.

But unlike traditional home schooling, Tech Trep is publicly funded. 

Within weeks of launching, it’s come under scrutiny for wooing families with dollars, which state education officials say could be an illegal enrollment incentive. The state will pay more than $860,000 toward Tech Trep this school year with scant assurance that the money will be spent on education. The Middlebury Community Schools district is overseeing the school and stands to gain nearly $1,000 in state funding for each student it enrolls. 

The program’s unusual approach has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. It’s not certain if that attention will curtail Tech Trep’s growth in Indiana.

“They’re diverting money from public control for private benefit,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who sits on the House education committee. “If you wanted to create a situation for chaos … this is the structure you would set up.”

Rep. Bob Behning, the chair of the House education committee, raised concerns about whether the program fits into current state law and how much it could cost if it attracts families who are currently home schooling without state funding. 

“It appears to be realistically more support for home-schoolers than what I think the current definition of virtual education is,” said Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We may need to do a better job of defining what a program like this looks like and how we are going to fund it moving forward.”

‘It’s not a blank check’

The school, which is called Inspire Digital Learning School in state records, accepts virtual students from across Indiana. It has enrolled 173 students this year, fewer than 20% of whom live in Middlebury boundaries. Daily management is handled by Tech Trep, a Utah-based for-profit that runs virtual programs under the same brand in several states, including Idaho, Wyoming, and Tennessee. 

The company is hiring five certified teachers, or about one per 35 students, according to Middlebury. Teachers advise parents and review learning plans and student work. Tech Trep will also arrange for students to take required state tests. 

The district plans to closely oversee the management company, according to officials. Middlebury has staff monitoring enrollment, services for English language learners, special education, testing, and accuracy in reporting data. The district will also track student performance by requiring students to meet goals every two weeks, and students will receive report cards with their grades.

“This is certainly not a hands-off type of partnership,” said Middlebury Assistant Superintendent Robby Goodman. “We want to know what our students are learning. We want to make sure that they’re being held accountable. We want to see their progress.”

Goodman said the school is designed to attract parents who want their children to learn at home even though they are too young to study online independently.

Cannon never intended to home-school. When the pandemic ends, she plans to send her children back to school. But this year, she believes the support Tech Trep offers is especially valuable to her as a new home-schooler. When she submits work showing what her children have learned, the teacher writes feedback and notes of encouragement for them. And her children are taking online classes in science and social studies that meet once a month.

The funding has helped the family pay for textbooks, math manipulatives, refurbished Chromebooks, and piano lessons, Cannon said.

“It’s being monitored,” she said. “It’s not a blank check to spend the money on whatever you want. It’s to get your kids supplies for school.”

A warning from the state

The education stipend is one of the most unusual and controversial elements of Tech Trep’s program. Parents can use it not only for textbooks, but also for music lessons, educational toys, museum passes, and even Netflix subscriptions if they plan to access its educational content, said Janet Cox, program director for Tech Trep in Indiana. When the program launched, parents could make purchases themselves and request reimbursement from Tech Trep after submitting receipts. 

Home school support programs in other states also offer this type of financial benefit to families. But in Indiana, Tech Trep is hitting a speed bump. In September, officials from the Indiana Department of Education told Middlebury administrators that they could not offer the stipend because it violates a state law meant to prevent incentives from influencing enrollment choices, according to spokesman Adam Baker.

As a result, Tech Trep has tweaked how parents receive the $1,700 benefit. Instead of buying items themselves, the company will make the purchases for them, according to a letter from Tech Trep to parents that the department of education shared with Chalkbeat.

Cox and Middlebury did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat about new restrictions on the stipend or if parents would be reimbursed for purchases they made before the new policy. 

In a Facebook group for parents, Cox said Tech Trep would make sure it was within the law. But, she added, “we will honor our promises to parents as well and not leave you stuck with expenses for educational materials that you bought expecting us to pay for.”

In the same Facebook group, a post from Tech Trep promised it would approve additional online sites where parents could choose materials that the school would purchase for them. 

Baker referred questions about the legality of the arrangement to the State Board of Accounts. “We do not audit or approve expenditures,” he wrote. 

The State Board of Accounts did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat.

Indiana’s troubled history of virtual schools

Even before the pandemic made online schooling a more popular option, district-run schools across the state have been launching lucrative virtual programs run by outside companies. Like Tech Trep, many of them are created to compete with fast-growing virtual charter schools. 

State lawmakers have raised concerns about whether school districts can properly oversee large, statewide virtual programs, and they banned districts from chartering virtual schools after two online schools under the watch of the Daleville district siphoned tens of millions of dollars in public money. 

A state audit found that Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, misspent more than $85 million over three years

The state hasn’t stopped districts from starting their own online schools — which aren’t subject to the oversight called for in state charter laws.

Districts can make a lot of money through online schools. In Modoc, Indiana, for example, a booming virtual school tripled enrollment for Union School Corp. and rescued the tiny rural district from budget shortfalls.

Where the public funding goes

The state will pay more than $4,990 for each student who enrolls in Tech Trep. Middlebury will keep a 20% cut for oversight, and Tech Trep will receive the rest, or nearly $4,000 per student, to run the program and pay for supplies for families, according to the contract. 

For the 173 students enrolled this year, the state will hand out more than $860,000. And that could be just the beginning. A Tech Trep partnership with a rural district in Idaho helped fuel surging enrollment. Two years after launching, it grew to about 1,000 students, according to reporting by Idaho Ed News

Because virtual students and teachers don’t come to school in person, experts and advocates worry that many students are not actually attending classes or studying class material. Indiana law requires elementary school students to have at least five hours of instructional time, but at virtual schools, that doesn’t mean they have to be online for five hours a day. 

Although Tech Trep requires parents to submit student work every other week, when it comes to attendance, it uses the honor system. It counts students as absent only if parents explicitly say their children are not in school, said Cox.

The Indiana Department of Education requires schools to submit calendars. The department offers guidance and leaves it up to corporations to ensure they provide enough hours, Baker wrote.

“If we discover they have not provided sufficient instructional days or instructional time, we will take action up to and including tuition support reductions for failure to provide 180 days of instruction,” he said. 

A critical time for home education

Middlebury officials said that in light of problems with other virtual schools, they are working to ensure they provide proper oversight of Tech Trep. For example, they will require the company to provide semi-annual financial reports that show how the money the company receives is spent.

Despite the problems virtual schools have had in Indiana, families want alternative options, said Goodman, the assistant superintendent. Middlebury already offers online high school courses, he said. Tech Trep seemed like a good option for younger children, who need more parental support. 

“It’s important for us to make sure we have the pulse of what our families are needing and wanting and asking for,” Goodman said.

At a moment when many parents are anxious about the health risks of the coronavirus and frustrated that their children are spending hours on computers each day, Tech Trep is appealing to families from across the state. 

When schools closed down last spring, Shaina Dwiel had to educate her 6- and 8-year-old daughters at home. But she didn’t want her children to spend hours online learning each day. So this year, she decided to home-school. 

Dwiel, a stay-at-home mom in Bloomington — 200 miles south of Middlebury — enrolled her daughters in Tech Trep because it helps pay for curriculum and classes such as ballet while also giving her flexibility. 

“If we’re going to all have to school at home,” Dwiel said, “we want to do it our way.” 

By blending elements of home schooling and elements of traditional public school, Tech Trep could be an ideal fit for some families, Cox said. While parents direct how their students learn, the program provides support including state-certified teachers, curriculum advisers, educational materials, and parent training sessions. 

“If I can provide something to those kids who aren’t successful in public school, but maybe need more support than traditional home schooling,” she said, “it’s just another choice.” 

Online learning blurs the home schooling line

Interestingly, the most vocal criticism of Tech Trep comes from home-school parents, who see the model as potentially threatening their liberty.

In early August, Kylene and Bryan Varner drove nearly three hours to attend a Middlebury school board meeting. The home-school parents raised a host of concerns about Tech Trep — from how the district would monitor issues such as attendance to whether it would violate state law to give money to families. 

Indiana has among the most lax home schooling regulations in the country. Home-schoolers don’t need to take state tests, provide documentation of their education, or tell officials that they are educating their children at home. They are only required to track the number of days of instruction. 

As a result, it’s impossible to say how much students are learning, whether they are keeping up with peers in public schools, or even how many Indiana students are home-schooled. 

Historically, parents have often chosen to home-school to avoid government involvement in their children’s education. Many parents oppose taking public funding in part because doing so invites state scrutiny of the education they are providing. Those same parents are often vocal critics of publicly funded virtual schools because they blur the distinction between public education and home schooling. Tech Trep goes a step further by specifically targeting home-school families. 

With its new program, Bryan Varner told the board, Middlebury is “creating a poison pill … which may be used to encroach on home-school liberties and parental rights for the entire state of Indiana.” 

Although publicly funded home-school support programs are common in some states and communities, their reputations are mixed. In California, for example, charter schools that specifically serve home-school families stirred controversy last year, because parents were using state funding to buy luxuries such as Disneyland passes

Some advocates for oversight of home schooling say that well-run programs can have clear benefits. In Alaska, for example, a program supports families while still imposing restrictions on what they can spend public money on and requirements to monitor children’s education, said Rachel Coleman of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a group that supports regulation of home schooling. 

“It is simply the case that having access programs like the ones in Alaska improve the education that children receive,” Coleman said — and accountability measures are key to ensuring programs are not “pocketing a bunch of public money.”