breaking

Indiana state board member resigns from position as leader of Hoosier Academies online charter schools

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

Byron Ernest, the head of schools for three Indiana online charter schools, announced his resignation this week.

Ernest, also a member of the Indiana State Board of Education, told Chalkbeat he chose to leave his position leading Hoosier Academies schools voluntarily. John Marske, the Hoosier Academies school board chairman, said Ernest told him before the board’s Tuesday meeting.

Marske said the announcement was a surprise.

“The board fully supported Dr. Ernest,” Marske said in an email. “And we were quite disappointed upon hearing of his resignation. … We haven’t yet had an opportunity to sit down with him and discuss reasons for his decision.”

It’s unclear if Ernest’s resignation had anything to do with other recent changes for Hoosier Academies.

The school board voted to close Hoosier Academy Virtual last month. At the time, Marske said the board was concerned it could not meet standards set by its authorizer, Ball State University. The school has received seven consecutive F grades from the state, but the state board did not vote to close the school when it had a hearing in May. The hearing was part of the school’s years-long process to convince state education officials to keep it open despite its poor performance.

Ernest worked for K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest online school providers. Hoosier Academies contracts with K12 to manage its schools.

Hoosier Academies has three schools in Indiana — Hoosier Academy-Indianapolis, where students learn some of the week in-person and some of the week online; Hoosier Academy Virtual, a full-time online school; and Insight School of Indiana, a full-time online school intended for students who struggle and need more intensive support.

The schools were rated a D, F and F, respectively, by the state in 2017.

Ernest previously worked as principal of Emmerich Manual High School after it had been taken over by the state for repeated failing grades. While he was there, the school went from an F to a D. Ernest was also a 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year. He was appointed to the state board in 2016 by House Speaker Brian Bosma.

Marske said teachers and staff have been notified. Until they can find a new head of schools, Rachel Goodwin was appointed by K12 Inc. to fill the role. Goodwin was previously Senior Director of Academics for K12 Inc. and has been an educator in a Chicago charter school network.

 

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

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

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”



Indiana online schools

Former Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz: Virtual schools ‘prey’ on vulnerable students

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz talks with reporters following an Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2016.

As far as former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz is concerned, full-time online schools are “a failed alternative” to traditional schools.

In response to a Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School published late last month, Ritz argued in an Indianapolis Business Journal column that virtual learning has its place in the classroom, but most of the time, online charter schools can’t meet the needs of their students.

Chalkbeat found that at Indiana Virtual School, a fast-growing online school which has already opened a second Indiana school, student-to-teacher ratios are sky-high and few students graduate. The school was also charged millions of dollars by its founder’s former company to manage the school, a set-up which has raised ethical questions.

She continued:

“Virtual learning has its place in all of our schools to deepen learning, enhance practice skills, and provide access to information. However, virtual learning should not be offered to students, using taxpayer money, as a complete alternative to school.

The key word is “school.” If you have not read the Oct. 31 special report from Chalkbeat titled, ‘As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions,’ then you should. Not-for-profit companies like the one mentioned in the article make a lot of money getting chartered as a school and spending your tax dollars while failing to provide quality education to some of our most vulnerable students.

In Indiana, in the name of ‘choice,’ legislative leaders take money from these companies. These companies want to be able to effectively lobby for more state money to prey on our most vulnerable students through exclusive opportunities to capture more of the virtual education space.”

Since leaving office, Ritz has started her own consulting company, Advancing Public Schools. The organization works with public school district boards to promote their schools’ work and analyze and fill gaps in literacy and reading programs.

You can read the entire column here and find Chalkbeat’s investigation here.