deja vu

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

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Ball State University oversees all three Hoosier Academies schools.

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.”

Indiana online schools

Indiana state board OKs committee to consider virtual charter school rules

PHOTO: Chalkbeat staff
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry proposed the resolution to create the committee.

The Indiana State Board of Education is moving forward with forming a committee that is expected to look closely into how virtual charter schools are regulated.

The step comes nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools. Board member Gordon Hendry will lead the committee, which represents the state’s first move to give the schools more oversight since a Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable.

“I’ve been disappointed with performance (of virtual charters schools),” Hendry said. “Our taxpayers are spending tens of millions of dollars each year to educate the students in virtual charters. I think we owe it to ourselves to ensure we’re doing everything possible to make that happen.”

The resolution proposed by board member Gordon Hendry was approved by an 8-0 vote on Wednesday.

So far, lawmakers have been hesitant to to take decisive action regarding virtual charter schools. This year, the legislature killed three bills that would have regulated charter schools, though they didn’t specifically address virtual charter schools. Seven virtual charter schools are operating in Indiana this year, serving about 12,000 students across the state.

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

Hendry said board members Cari Whicker and Maryanne McMahon, both public school administrators, already offered to be on the committee. It’s not clear how often they would meet.

Three board members, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, were not present to vote.

Hendry and board member B.J. Watts said they wanted board member Byron Ernest, the former head of three virtual charter schools, in the state to weigh-in on the committee’s future conversations because of his experience leading Hoosier Academies, a post he left last fall.

But the schools’ history with the state board has been fraught at times. In 2015, Hoosier Academy Virtual, then one of the largest full-time online charter schools in the state, reached its limit for consecutive F grades. After several hearings over more than two years, the state board finally decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

Just a couple months later, the school’s own board voted to close at the end of this year.

Hendry said both local and national problems with online charter schools prompted him to propose the resolution.

“It’s my intent to spend the next four to six months really delving into the issues,” Hendry said. “And making some recommendations for both this board as well as the General Assembly to consider.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools.

This story has been corrected to reflect that board member Byron Ernest was present for the vote.

Indiana online schools

Indiana education officials are taking another look at regulating virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Nearly five months after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for “immediate attention and action” on Indiana’s subpar online charter schools, state education officials might soon take steps to address them — although they could fall short of the sweeping changes virtual school critics are pushing for.

The Indiana State Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday on forming a committee that could become Indiana’s first effort in recent years to strengthen virtual charter school oversight. State board member Gordon Hendry would lead the committee. Hendry said it’s the state board’s responsibility to ensure online charter schools are performing and are managed properly, especially when Hoosier tax dollars support them.

He also added that if lawmakers won’t step in and take more immediate, decisive action — which they’ve been hesitant to do — the state board needs to add regulation. The Republican-dominated legislature killed three bills this year that would have regulated charter schools and declined to address virtual charter schools, which are public schools that allow students to attend school online from home.

“I have had my reservations about the poor performance of many of these schools,” said Hendry, a Democrat who has been on the board since 2013. “So I hope that we can draw some attention to the issue, bring in some of our thought leaders both in Indiana and nationally and try to solve some of the problems in a constructive way.”

Hendry said he is unsure if the measure will gain board support, but he’s hopeful. Holcomb’s education policy director, PJ McGrew, has been researching best practices in virtual schools across the country to help Indiana revise its own rules. Adopting new regulations could take at least a year after the committee makes its recommendations to the board.

Critics have called for more sweeping actions to address online charter schools, which — across the nation — suffer from low graduation rates, dismal student test scores, and financial and legal scandals.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual hired few teachers, posted poor academic performance and had questionable spending and business practices.

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

Since then, the state has also seen new virtual education programs crop up within public school districts. Those online programs are hard to evaluate because districts don’t release separate data for them.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider policies specific to virtual schools, such as making enrollment more selective and funding them based on whether students complete classes.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having charter school-friendly laws that the association says still hold schools accountable for performance. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1 in the nation.

But online charter schools have effectively lobbied Indiana and other states to fend off major regulations.

It’s not yet clear how often the state board’s committee would meet or who would be on it. A majority of the state board would have to vote in favor to form the committee.

The state board has gone back and forth on how to handle virtual charter schools, most notably in its yearslong discussions on Hoosier Academy Virtual, which had reached its limit for consecutive F grades from the state. Ultimately, the board decided to impose a fairly lenient punishment.

The academy was headed by state board member Byron Ernest until he announced his resignation last fall, shortly after the school’s board voted to have the school close this June. Ernest recused himself from discussions and votes pertaining to Hoosier Academies.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has joined Hendry in pushing for tighter accountability for virtual schools.

“Virtual charters are public schools, and the state spends millions of dollars to ensure that the students are receiving the best education they can,” Hendry said. “This is an appropriate topic for us to roll up our sleeves and do some real hard work and make some recommendations.”

Read more of Chalkbeat’s coverage of online schools here.