deja vu

In danger of closure, virtual charter surprises state board by transferring students to sister school

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis is a hybrid school at which some student work is done online and some at the school.

Indiana State Board of Education members were stunned to learn today that a failing charter school transferred some of its neediest students to a newly created sister school just before the board was expected to decide its fate.

The move, and the creation of a new school, already were approved by Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School’s sponsor, Ball State University, which surprised the state board. Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School received its fifth F-grade from the state in 2015, and the state board faced a decision today about whether to close the school.

That decision was postponed yet again, as board members said they wanted more information.

The situation was even more awkward as one of the state board members — Byron Ernest — is in charge of the network that operates the two schools. Ernest did not participate in the debate or the vote to postpone the decision.

The shift of students out of Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School and into the new Insight School of Indiana, also an online school, prompted a question from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and other board members: Was this an effort to avoid state sanctions?

“It will have a different clientele upon which it will be given a different grade,” Ritz said of Hoosier Virtual, whose population will change with Insight students rated separately from now on, “giving you the opportunity to perhaps not have an F — I’m just going to be blunt.”

The new “alternative virtual school” now enrolls Hoosier Virtual students who require the most extra support, said Ball State’s Bob Marra, such as those with special needs or those who need to retake classes to graduate high school. Marra said the move is in the best interest of students and included teacher and parent input.

“I believe we have demonstrated sufficient progress,” Marra told the board. “The school is moving in the right direction and doing the right things.”

But board members pointed out that siphoning off Hoosier Virtual’s most struggling students also could help the school raise its grade going forward, avoiding shutdown or other possible penalties. At the same time, Insight School of Indiana would have until 2017 before it receives its first state letter grade and then four years before the state would be required to take action to address any poor performance.

At a minimum, Ritz said, the school split “muddies the waters” for the board’s conversation about Hoosier Virtual’s performance and its immediate future after the one-year reprieve it was granted in March 2015.

If the board were to vote today to close Hoosier Virtual at the end of this year, that might compel teachers to leave in search of other jobs, jeopardizing the education of the kids at that school, some argued. Board member Cari Whicker said she wasn’t sure that another online charter school could so quickly take on Hoosier Virtual’s 3,861 students.

“This is a unique situation that isn’t a brick-and-mortar building with options for them to go to (another school) in the neighborhood,” Whicker said. “I want to make sure these kids get an education that they deserve.”

By putting the decision on hold for now, board members said they hope to consider Hoosier Academy Virtual’s 2016 letter grade due out this winter. The new grade could show whether turnaround efforts at the school have paid off, board members said.

Hoosier Academy Virtual scored the worst across the board of any of Indiana’s online schools — on test scores, graduation rate and dropout rate. The school’s ISTEP scores were far below state averages in 2015, 27 percentage points below the average in English and 30 percentage points below in math. Graduation rate has also been consistently low, at 21 percent in 2015 compared to the 89 percent statewide average.

There are few laws in Indiana that place restrictions to authorizers, like Ball State, that want to open additional charter schools. Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said she was disappointed in the board’s decision to wait to decide Hoosier Virtual’s fate.

“(It is) concerning Hoosier Academy is able to skirt public accountability by creating a new, last-minute charter school,” Meredith said. “While we certainly don’t want to interrupt student learning by closing the charter school abruptly, I can’t help but be concerned about the lost months in quality student learning that may be happening.”

action steps

Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

On Thursday, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the Indiana Virtual School’s “unsatisfactory” performance — which includes two years of F grades, low ISTEP scores and high student-teacher ratio — requires policymakers to get involved.

In October, Chalkbeat reported that Indiana Virtual School, one of the state’s largest online charter schools, had received more than $20 million from the state while graduating about 61 students. And between at least 2011 and 2015, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

“The state shouldn’t allow schools that have that poor of performance to continue,” Holcomb told Chalkbeat in a one-on-one interview. “I look forward over this next year, with the state board of education, to help put in place measures that hold schools accountable for poor performance. Poor performance would be putting it lightly.”

Holcomb is not alone in calling for Indiana to address the poor academic track records of statewide online charter schools, even though Indiana has long embraced charter schools and school choice.

Former state schools chief Glenda Ritz said virtual schools aren’t a sufficient alternative to traditional schools. State board member Tony Walker said he was shocked by Indiana Virtual’s low number of teachers, while The Mind Trust’s David Harris thinks the state should place a renewed focus on the quality of authorizers, the groups that oversee charters in Indiana. Indiana Virtual is one of the few schools in the state to be overseen by a public school district, Daleville Schools, a small rural district near Muncie.

Also on Thursday, the Indiana State Teachers Association called for a moratorium on virtual charter school growth as well as a funding formula fix based on academic progress, not enrollment. ISTA also asked more broadly for more scrutiny of charter school finances and for the state education department to “approve and monitor a plan to prevent financial and enrollment fraud, waste and abuse.”

Indiana Virtual and its sister school that opened this year, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, together enroll 6,332 students. Across the state, more than 12,000 students are enrolled in online charters, most of which earned F grades this year. Two other major online charters, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy, also opened new schools in the past year or so.

Holcomb said he understands it can take authorizers time to make changes to address poor academics in the schools they oversee, but children only have so many years to spare.

At this point, Holcomb said he doesn’t see a need just yet for legislation addressing online schools, although he wouldn’t rule it out. He said his team has communicated with the state board that this area needs “immediate attention and action.” It’s not yet clear what measures they want to introduce, or how much authority the state board has to change charter school rules, but he indicated authorizing could be on the list.

Read: Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

“This next year we’ll be looking at all these issues to say how can we best give students options that fit their needs while at the same time (give) parents and taxpayers confidence that these options are worthy,” Holcomb said. “I think the state board, in this instance, can right the ship.”

 

policy talk

Indiana online charter schools need more oversight. These 3 changes could help.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Daleville Public Schools, a small district located near Muncie, now oversees two statewide online charter schools.

The best way to fix a troubled charter school isn’t to go after the school, lawmakers and policymakers say — start with the authorizer.

A Chalkbeat investigation revealed that the school district charged with overseeing Indiana Virtual School has taken a hands-off approach that seems to meet the low expectations for authorizers in Indiana’s charter law, but the approach isn’t paying off when it comes to meeting the needs of the school’s students.

Special Report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

In the Hoosier state, authorizers — which can include universities, mayors, or school districts — can only be punished for their school’s bad academic performance, not other kinds of missteps. Even then, there’s no guarantee that a school would close or that an authorizer would be stripped of its privileges to oversee schools. Many states have grappled with how to approve the best authorizers who will operate good schools, and even though Indiana’s policy has been held up as a national model, it has gaps.

“You have authorizers that aren’t behaving appropriately, whether it be malicious or not,” said James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, one of the state’s charter authorizers. “Currently, consequences only come in when a school performs badly because our laws don’t contemplate legal violations.”

Control has been at the crux the debate — how much should an authorizer get involved in the daily affairs of charter schools, and how much should the state intervene if an authorizer veers off course? In an atmosphere where free market politics encourage experimentation, authorizers are given broad reign.

But in Indiana, authorizers are often paid by the schools they oversee, and there’s not much incentive to close them. David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust, said authorizers not only shouldn’t get authorizing fees from schools, but they also need to be heavily screened upfront to make sure they can do the work — especially if they are going to authorize virtual schools, which tend to have poor track records for student learning.

“The authorizer needs to assess whether it has the capacity to effectively oversee a school,” Harris said. “And if they can’t make the case that they do that well, then they shouldn’t authorize the school in the first place.”

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Oversight of Indiana Virtual School by the small Daleville Community School District has been fairly hands-off by the district’s own admission, and the district was on-track to earn at least $750,000 in fees last year. Over its six-year lifespan, the F-rated school has enrolled thousands of students but failed to graduate most of them or hire more than several dozen teachers. But it continues to bring in millions of state dollars. Daleville this summer began piloting a new evaluation tool that it thinks can help improve Indiana Virtual.

Since 2011, a for-profit company headed by Indiana Virtual’s founder, Thomas Stoughton, has charged the school millions of dollars in management services and rent, an agreement Daleville said it was unaware of. Stoughton has also led the school’s growth. In September, he opened a second statewide virtual school, also chartered by Daleville.

The variety of issues at Indiana Virtual School underscore a wider need to re-examine how the state holds charter school authorizers accountable for their schools.

“There’s a need to have virtual and online platforms available for certain students,” said state board member Tony Walker. “That being said, there are some problems I think with our model that I think are highlighted by this situation … there was a failure of the authorizer to keep proper monitoring and accountability.”

Ultimately, as Indiana lawmakers prepare to begin the 2018 legislative session in January, they can change the law, but it’s hard to say if they will. And though the State Board of Education has the authority to change education policy, it’s unclear how they could affect existing laws or policy around authorizing. At the very least, someone should be paying attention, said Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools.

“There’s no doubt that many of these online schools are disasters,” Petrilli said. “We have now seen in many states both terrible outcomes, but also financial scandals. And so there’s no doubt that policymakers have to figure out a better approach to regulating these entities.”

There are a number of steps Indiana could take to close gaps that allow chronically underperforming schools or subpar authorizers to continue. Here are some options:

Re-evaluate current authorizers to make sure they are up to the state’s standards.

In addition to other authorizing changes made in 2011 and 2013, Indiana created stricter requirements to weed out unfit authorizers in 2015. The move was widely praised — that year and in 2016, the state’s policies earned a top ranking from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But when the law changed, existing authorizers, including Daleville, were grandfathered in and didn’t have to go through the new, more rigorous screening through the Indiana State Board of Education. School districts that applied were automatically approved and didn’t need to complete the rest of the screening.

There’s no definitive consensus about what good authorizing looks like, partially because charter advocates have long lobbied for fewer restrictions. So although Indiana requires that all nine of its authorizers adopt best practices, such as those developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, state charter law lays out no way to enforce it. (Compared to the association’s general guidelines, those on virtual charter schools are much more stringent.)

State Board spokesman Josh Gillespie said only the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United school district has applied to be an authorizer since the rule change, a 1,828-student district about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. The district doesn’t appear to charter any schools at this time.

If the state wanted to send a message that it valued high quality authorizers, it could walk back the grandfathering provision.

Stop allowing authorizers to get paid by the schools they oversee.

Under current law, charter authorizers can collect up 3 percent of a school’s state funding as payment for monitoring.

Authorizers should have the ability to get financial support for their work, sources told Chalkbeat, but that support shouldn’t come from schools themselves. Tony Walker, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education representing Northwest Indiana, said he worries about the fees in particular when it comes to school district authorizers that might already be struggling financially compared to larger state organizations and universities.

“There are inherent conflicts that arise when (a district) is getting chartering fees from the school and they desperately need the money,” Walker said. “I don’t think they have the same resources that Ball State and the (Indiana Charter School Board) have in terms of monitoring and providing support.”

One alternative is that the state could budget to support all authorizers directly. If the money isn’t tied to school enrollment, it could help reduce the incentive to accrue students beyond what a school can actually support.

“The fee is a bad idea,” Harris said. “It creates an incentive to charter schools that shouldn’t be chartered because the authorizer generates revenue from that.”

Keep authorizers and virtual charter operators from opening additional schools or enrolling students if current ones have been consistently low-performing.

Restricting how virtual schools gain students and replicate could make sense even in a state that has long supported online education.

Currently, public charter schools need four years of F grades before the state board can cap enrollment, reduce authorizer fees or close the school.

But there’s already precedent set in Indiana law for how this system could improve to address troubled schools more quickly and automatically. Lawmakers could take a cue from the state’s voucher program.

If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students. Last year the law was tweaked to allow schools to appeal that decision, but the state board can still deny such a request.

Indiana Virtual School, Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy — all statewide, full-time online charter schools with consecutive years of F grades — have quietly opened new schools within the past year or so.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to allow low-performing schools to open new schools.

“I think virtual schools should succeed or not be opened,” Kruse said. “So if they can’t get their act together, I think they ought to decide to just close down their schools … If they’re failing with what they’re doing now, why should we allow them to open up more failing schools?”