A new House proposal would allow virtual charter schools, which conduct classes almost exclusively online, to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

One virtual school authorizer believes this proposal would help solve two problems that virtual school operators believe are especially relevant to their students: high mobility and challenging learning issues.

“What we’re trying to get at is refining their attendance policy,” said Bob Marra, who directs charter school efforts at Ball State University, the group that oversees Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy. “How do you really measure this in the virtual environment?”

READ: Find more coverage of Indiana online schools here.

Marra’s schools are the two largest online school providers in the state.

House bill 1382, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, offers no guidance as to what that policy might look like, but does say charter authorizers are responsible for making sure the school adheres to it and doesn’t abuse it.

“If you’re in a classroom and the kids are not engaged and going to sleep, you have the ability to tell that kid to go down to the principal,” Behning said. “If you’re in a virtual classroom, how do you even know the kid’s engaged? Because you’re not in the room with them there’s no way to do it.”

But Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, strongly opposes the use of virtual schools, and doesn’t believe — however attendance rules might change — that they can work well for students.

“How do we know the student is ‘engaged’ or ‘attending’? We don’t, and so we’re having a debate about how we can enforce the requirement in a context where I think you can’t enforce the requirement,” DeLaney said.

Teachers in online schools take attendance in their daily or weekly lectures, but they can’t always physically see students.

Virtual schools typically perform poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

They also say they struggle to keep students engaged and can’t easily enforce attendance policies. But online school critics say these problems also occur in many of the state’s struggling urban and rural schools.

The proposal in HB 1382 would allow virtual schools to remove a student as long as “adequate notice” is given to the students and parents, and parents have a chance to explain the absence before the student is removed, if necessary.

Indiana state law is ambiguous on when schools are allowed to expel students, saying kids can be expelled for “student misconduct” or “substantial disobedience.” Neither phrase is explicitly defined, and school districts have interpreted them differently.

A Bloomington high school says in its student code of conduct that expulsion or suspension could result for tardiness or absences. But Indianapolis Public Schools’ code of conduct doesn’t advise removing kids from school for those same offenses.

In general, DeLaney thinks the bill cuts too much slack to charter schools.

He referred to another provision in the bill that would change how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. The bill includes an existing part of state law that requires the board to consider a charter school’s student population before it makes a decision to close or renew the failing school.

There is no similar language in Indiana state law regarding what to consider before closing a traditional public school.

“I don’t know why we are creating a list of excuses for failure,” DeLaney said.

Charter “schools have promised us that this is exactly what they can deal with. We’re saying the very thing they’re supposed to cure is an obstacle to their success.”

Much of the rest of the language in the bill makes clarifications to existing law, essentially ensuring that before an authorizer can renew a charter on a failing school, it must first go to the state board to explain why the school should remain open.

Previously, that timeline was more ambiguous, and some charter authorizers renewed their schools before being asked to consult with the state board, technically violating the law. James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, said this bill rights the contradictory language.

“What the change does is it makes the timeline make sense,” Betley said.

Marra said he’ll be keeping close watch over how the “student engagement” policies play out so students aren’t removed without cause.

“That’s what we want to be able to look at,” Marra said last week at the bill’s first hearing. “How does (an engagement policy) get implemented? We’ll be monitoring.”

Behning said the engagement policy, in particular, still had details that would need to be worked out, but he thought it was a good first step toward trying to address problems virtual schools have reported. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, and is up for its final hearing in the House this week.

“I’m not saying it’s a perfect fix,” Behning said. “It begins a discussion about how do you make sure that these students are really getting the most out of their educational experience.”