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 lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

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

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

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 posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

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

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

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 the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”

Indiana online schools

Charter advocacy group ranks Indiana’s law No. 1, but calls for greater virtual school accountability

For the third year in a row, Indiana was recognized by a leading charter school advocacy group for having the nation’s strongest charter school law, but the state was cited for failing to take action to properly regulate online charter schools.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has ranked Indiana No. 1 since 2016 based on how well state law corresponds with the Alliance’s model law. Specifically, Indiana is praised for not capping charter schools’ growth and for directing more money to charter schools to make up funding gaps compared to traditional schools. The state was lauded for its “remarkable growth and development” in charter schools since they started in 2001.

The high rating by the group, whose purpose is to promote and support charter school growth, is the latest indication of Indiana’s commitment to allowing outside groups develop and run public schools independent of school districts. Such pro-charter policies have been supported for years by Republican legislators and governors.

But even in its praise for the state’s pro-charter policies, the group found fault with Indiana’s oversight of virtual schools. The group called on the state to raise the bar for online charter schools, which have had a track record of abysmal performance not just in Indiana, but across the nation.

Indiana has yet to include most of the Alliance’s recommendations regarding full-time virtual schools in state law. The Alliance’s report says Indiana law includes a “small number” of the Alliance’s virtual school provisions, but it still has work to do in “strengthening accountability for full-time virtual charter schools.”

Indiana is not alone — no states include all of the online charter school provisions recommended by the Alliance, and many were called out for failing to include any at all. Although the Alliance advocates for increasing charter schools across the country, it also emphasizes school quality.

In a recent report, the Alliance outlined policies to help regulate virtual schools. They include setting maximum enrollment levels for virtual schools and not allowing them to exceed that enrollment in subsequent years unless they could prove students were learning. States are also encouraged to create a performance-based funding system, where schools get money based on what students achieve, not on whether they are enrolled. Both ideas have received initial support from Indiana lawmakers and policymakers.

The 2018 alliance ranking follows a Chalkbeat investigation identifying low performance at Indiana Virtual School and questionable business and spending practices. Despite Indiana Virtual’s F grades and subpar graduation rate, the state continues to allocate millions of dollars to it. In September, Indiana Virtual opened a second school. Almost every online charter school in Indiana received an F grade in 2017, and like Indiana Virtual, several others have also recently opened additional schools.

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

Earlier this month, two state senators introduced bills to tighten charter school oversight laws and prevent poor performing schools from multiplying, but no hearings have been scheduled yet. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has committed to working with the state board to look into virtual schools in Indiana, but details of his policy plans are not yet clear.

Learn more about Indiana Virtual School and online charters in the state here.